The Gift (dir. Joel Edgerton)

Posted: August 11, 2015 in Uncategorized

“The Gift” is an uncommonly smart thriller and mystery. Most films that revolve around big questions often telegraph their clues with a shot or a music cue that practically yells to the audience “PAY ATTENTION TO THIS!”  Not so with “The Gift”, which  allows clues to float by until, afterward, you realize how things fit together, and that the film still leaves you not knowing some things.

Bullying is starting to become a theme in films again.  Earlier this year we had “Unfriended”, which was pretty much an anti-bullying PSA masquerading as a horror film, and now “The Gift”, which is being marketed as a horror movie despite not at all being one (there are exactly two jump scares, but the film is more firmly a “psychological thriller” to use modern parlance), takes on a new angle. Most horror or thriller films about the victim of past bullying make that victim a one dimensional monster (slasher films) or simply a person out for revenge. Here, we have a person who both feels like the real adult result of severe bullying, as well as a potentially real life monster.  That man is Gordo, played by the film’s writer and director, Joel Edgerton.  Gordo is socially awkward, and feels like every real person you’ve ever known who is nice enough, but just painful to actually be around.  The original title of “The Gift” was, in fact, “Weirdo”, and whether Gordo the Weirdo is as awkward or as simple-minded as he at first appears to be is one of the film’s mysteries.

The plot involves Simon (Jason Bateman, at his smarmiest) and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall).  They’ve moved from Chicago to California, near to where Simon grew up, following Robyn’s miscarriage, which was either caused by work related stress, or by abuse of prescription anxiety medication and alcohol caused by stress, we’re never made clear which.  One day, while shopping for house wares, Gordo, an acquaintance of Simon’s from high school, “runs in” to Simon and there’s a short, polite exchange, where the usual social pleasantries are given about needing to catch up and such.  The film does a very accurate job of capturing the empty speech real people share during social interactions with strangers and acquaintances, as well as how people, particularly couples, realistically talk about other people that are not present. Edgerton has an ear for naturalistic dialogue that is quite impressive.

Soon after, Gordo is delivering gifts to the couple, like a bottle of wine or a can of glass cleaner (the couple’s new house is full of windows…a glass house…kind of on the nose, but okay) and Robyn, wanting to be polite despite finding Gordo’s generosity a but peculiar and maybe even sad,  invites him over for dinner.  After some time, Simon gets more uncomfortable with Gordo’s visitations while he (Simon) is at work, and tells Gordo to back off.  Then the couple’s dog goes missing, the koi fish Gordo gave them die off, and Robyn is back to being really stressed, which doesn’t help since she and Simon want to try again to have a baby, Simon is reluctant to let Robyn get back to work despite Robyn’s desire to do so because of this stress, and the secret taking of prescription pills might be making a comeback.

Eventually, Gordo agrees to back off, but the letter he sends saying he’ll do so includes a mention to getting beyond the past and letting “bygones by bygones”. Robyn draws from this that something went on between Simon and Gordo back when they were in high school, but Simon refuses to tell her. To go into any more of the plot would require massive spoilers.

There are a number of issues at play in this film.  Bullying, sure.  Lying, and how false narratives believed by others can fundamentally shape the rest of our lives for the worse is another.  There’s also the concept of victims becoming monsters, the petty rivalries and macho posturing of men spilling over to hurt innocent women, the controlling nature of men over women, etc.  The movie doesn’t drive home one particular message, but rather seems to want to incorporate small asides to issues of justice, gender, class, and relationship dynamics all within the package of a deft and skillful and authentic-feeling thriller.  Despite the rather intense and perhaps outlandish twists of the plot, the film never feels unreal.  I believed every turn of the film COULD actually happen, and that nothing which transpires is outside the realm of believability, and all of the characters feel like real people who make the decisions they would make in real life based on the personalities that are presented to us. Edgerton can write authentic, real-feeling characters, even ones as out-there are Gordo is revealed to be.

The ending will turn off many people. It doesn’t provide a clear answer as to whether a certain act happened, and even if a simple blood test could solve one aspect, which still wouldn’t necessarily prove definitively that the act did not take place.  We also are left to ponder how much of Gordo, as he presented himself to Simon and Robyn, was the true Gordo, as well as how long he’d been planning the thing he plans.  Some will feel that the character of Robyn is dealt with unfairly because of the ending, and the film ultimately leaves us with no one to root for but her, and it make have made her a victim solely to punish a man. Even if the act didn’t take place, this may still count as a girl-in-the-fridge moment. In a way, the uncertainty is the point.  Once an idea is planted in someone’s head, unless it can be definitively proven or disproved, that idea will always remain.  I think of the recent spate of police shootings of unarmed persons. Did Michael Brown charge at that police officer, or did he surrender only to be gunned down in cold blood?  Both ideas are presented to us, and unless one can be solidly proven over the other (like if a secret videotape were to surface) we’ll never know which one was true.  The same can go for rape cases. Unless there’s evidence, they often boil down to he-said-she-said, and whichever narrative takes hold will have a profound effect on the parties involved for the rest of their lives, especially if it’s the false narrative.

In “The Gift”, a character has been forced to live under a widely believed false narrative for 25 years, one that ruined his life and almost killed him.  The revenge plot is a bit more maddening, because at least that character KNEW the truth, even if others did not. The revenge is to present two possible narratives (maybe 2 and a half possible).  One of those narratives would leave the new victim mentally at peace, but his life is still in shambles from his own actions.  The other narratives would destroy him from guilt, among other emotions.  The not knowing, however, is nothing less than mental torment.  The idea that a woman may have been reduced to a mere method of delivering torment to someone else is despicable, but whether that anger should be reserved for a fictional character within the film, or the film itself, I honestly don’t know.  I do know that ending of the film is disturbing in a way I find unusual from most others.  “The Gift” is a film rated R only for language, and contains no on screen violence save for a couple of short fist fights, and yet it disturbs the audience by building characters and suggesting that something may have happened to one of them because of the actions that another did to get back at the third.

This movie’s kind of fucked up.  I loved how damned simple it was, though. A tight, clever, intelligent script and well drawn characters is all this film needed to deliver one of the bigger gut-punch endings I have seen in some time.  As a mystery it is superb in that way it delivers information without making the audience aware of when that information is important.  The film doesn’t insult the audience’s intelligence, and it always feels authentic and not manipulative. B+

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