“Simply don’t press the button. If enough of you don’t, the test will conclude.”

The Box (Kelly, 2009) appears to be about greed and materialism — selfishness vs. social responsibility.  You can get a million dollars but someone you don’t know must die.  All you have to do is press a button.  One thinks of sweatshops, war profiteering, etc.

But there is another twist.  After pressing the button, your only child is made deaf and blind.  In other words, you can get rich, but only at the expense of cutting yourself off from your child.  He will never hear your voice or see your face again. You may keep the million dollars or you may heal your child.  But the only way to heal your child is to kill your wife and then go to jail for the murder leaving your child alone — alone, but with a million dollars.

Also, there is the puzzle of free will.  At the very moment that the next owner of the box presses the button, you shoot your wife, thereby healing your child.  But what is the cause and what is the effect?  Did the next owner’s pushing the button cause you to shoot your wife?  Or did your choosing to shoot your wife cause the next owner to push the button?  The second reading is supported by the fact that everyone who pushes the button is shown to do so somewhat arbitrarily, in a momentary impulse.

And then there is the fact of why you chose to shot your wife.  You couldn’t stand to let your child live with a handicap.  The theme of “disfigurement” runs throughout the film.  The man who presents the box has a disfigured face and the wife has a disfigured foot.  In fact, the man uses the wife’s disfigurement to help manipulate her into choosing to push the button by having one of his underlings publically taunt her about her foot.  She later says she feels “love” rather than “pity” for the man with the disfigured face. All his pain was right there on his face.  Others could know him for who he was.  That’s what it means for hell to be other people, the wife says interpreting Sartre’s No Exit (another recurring motif in the film).

So the disfigurement is a symbol of public pain.  The question is whether you can choose to live with pain and allow others to see you how you are.  Or must you be able to present a perfect image to the world?  Can you choose to accept disfigurement in yourself and others?  The couple in the film could not.  For them their child’s disfigurement was a fate worse than death and they chose to kill themselves (to kill the wife and let the husband go to prison for it) instead.

Of course, they don’t think they are simply killing themselves.  They think they are going to heaven.  They think they have been given a vision of a perfect afterlife.  This life is just a “temporary state of being” for “the box that is your body inevitably withers then dies. Where upon it is placed in the ultimate box, to slowly decompose.”

Having pushed the button, they are now in “purgatory” and must choose between dying and going to heaven or remaining in the hell that is other people in a world of disfigurement.  Their suicide is a nihilistic rejection of this world in favor of another world.  The whole concept of “disfigurement” implies that there is some way things are supposed to be but are not.  But if they could have chosen to accept the world as it is, disfigurement and all, then the next owners of the box would not have pushed the button, and the cycle would have been broken.

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