Wow, this certainly isn’t what I expected from the relatively benign interview I saw of star James Marsden on “Live with Regis and Kelly.” It’s dark, drear, and troubling. It starts like a fairly straight forward thriller, and then descends into weirdness involving scenes that are phantasmagorical.
Norma and Arthur Lewis (Cameron Diaz and Marsden), a young married couple with a young son, are having financial problems. Out of the blue their doorbell rings and there stands a facially disfigured Arlington Steward (Frank Langella), holding a box with a button on top. He explains to them that if they press the button they will be given $1 million in cash, tax free, but if they push it someone they don’t know will die.
This is based on a short story by Richard Matheson (“Button, Button”), published in Playboy Magazine in 1970, and apparently also by The Milgram Experiment, conducted in 1961 by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram. Milgram got students to agree to answer questions. If the answers were incorrect, someone in another room would receive electric shocks of increasing intensity, eventually potentially fatal. The person in the other room was not actually receiving a shock, but the participants didn’t know that. The person being shocked would respond with yells and screams of pain. At the outset, Milgram polled students and the estimate was that only 1.2% would be willing to proceed to the fatal shock. In fact 65 percent (26 of 40) of experiment participants administered the experiment’s final massive 450-volt shock.
In the movie, Norma presses the button (this happens at the beginning of the film, so it’s not a spoiler; I’m not letting anything out of the bag; in fact, in the clip shown on Regis’ show, it shows her pushing the button). What follows progresses from intriguing to complicated to bizarre.
Writer-director Richard Kelly has pulled out all the stops. Well acted by Langella, Diaz, and Marsden, what genre this could be is anybody’s guess. It’s definitely a thriller, but it could also be classified as sci-fi and/or horror. It has scenes that are faintly reminiscent of Apple’s 1984 Super Bowl Commercial.
The film presents a moral dilemma without being particularly judgmental, although there is one unfortunate short piece of dialogue where it seems to be making some sort of political statement. Despite that, overall it handles it in a manner that leaves one thinking.
I can’t say I enjoyed this movie, in the ordinary definition of “enjoy,” but it did keep me involved and it did cause me to think about it long after I left the theater. To me, that is one good definition of an entertaining movie.