A Muddled Movie About Something Rather Important

Many years ago, I think in an Agatha Christie novel, I encountered an old conscience-teaser (I don’t know what else to call it) that went something like this:

You get your heart’s desire; but to pay for it, a Chinese mandarin must die.

There’s the temptation. If this person were to die in the normal course of events, you’d never even know it. He’s a perfect stranger on the other side of the world. His life would seem a small price to pay for fame, fortune, love, health, or whatever else might head your crave list.

But the catch is that you know that as soon as you get your wish, an innocent man will die because of it.

Which was the inspiration for The Box (2009) by Richard Kelly, starring Cameron Diaz, James Marsden, and Frank Langella. A married couple very badly needs a break, and Frank Langella shows up on their doorstep with a box. If they push the button on the box, they get a million dollars in cash… but someone they don’t know dies.

I happened to be thinking about the old bit about the mandarin when my eye lit on this DVD in the library. In fact I was thinking about our disastrous election, and how the American people have changed during my lifetime. Once, any decent person, I hope, would have turned down Langella’s offer. Today I think most Americans would push that button in a New York minute.

After all, most of us seem willing for politicians to rob our neighbors–under the guise of taxation (but it’s really robbery backed up by the threat of force)–as long as they give some of our neighbors’ stuff to us. From robbery to murder doesn’t seem like such a giant step, does it?

Anyhow, this film offers you something to think about. The screenplay, based on a Richard Matheson story, wanders around a bit. I won’t blame anyone who winds up calling it a cock-and-bull story. It’s science-fiction, but it should have been fantasy. Matheson had a fondness for New Age pagan claptrap, a great flaw in an otherwise good writer: that comes across in the film.  Langella is great, the cinematography is terrific, and the music score is effective and creepy. But the story-line is a kind of cat’s-cradle that didn’t quite come off.

Never mind. Let’s pose the question in contemporary terms.

For you, American Voter, to get some stuff you want, somebody else whom you probably don’t know must be robbed of his stuff. Do you push the button?

A few days ago, 51 percent of you did.

5 comments on “A Muddled Movie About Something Rather Important

  1. An excellent analogy, something to make people think; but the ones who need to won’t have seen your column!

    1. Certainly, I will see what I can do. Incidentally, I already forward your imaginative missives to many friends and acquaintances, even those who grab any handouts available to them and theirs.

    1. Yes–it’s called “values clarification” and is intended as a substitute for morality.
      I found the original source for the dilemma: an essay by Chateaubriand in 1802. That’s how far back it goes. Chateaubriand intended it to be a Christian parable. Today it’s a muddled movie.

Leave a Reply