There’s a great Calvin and Hobbes strip where Calvin, on seeing the phrase “adult situations” appended to a tv show, asks Hobbes what that phrase means. “Probably things like going to work, paying bills and taxes, taking responsibilities…” Hobbes answers. “They don’t kid around when they say ‘for mature audiences,’” Calvin quips. I was reminded of that strip while watching Joel Edgerton’s The Gift. Though it has the scares and tension you’d expect of a thriller, the film’s driving force is an ethical quandary that confounds where other films might terrify. That driving force is ultimately centrifugal, however, and The Gift spins out of control in its final act, leaving it an appealing but unsuccessful film.
SPOILERS ahead. You’ve been warned. Also, since this is the first question I always ask before a movie, no, the adorable dog doesn’t die. I’ll type it (code it?) again, so it can hopefully get picked up by search engines for anyone else who spent twenty-some minutes hunting for this info: the dog does not die in The Gift. If that was a priority for you, too, find me on Facebook. We have at least one thing in common.
The Gift begins as a thriller, morphs into a tragedy, and becomes something altogether different. The film follows a young couple as they move from Chicago to Los Angeles. Simon, played by Jason Bateman, is trying to land a lucrative sales position for a security company. Robyn, played by Rebecca Hall, is trying to maintain the design business she left in Chicago. Early in the film, the couple’s surprised when they bump into an old high school acquaintance of Simon’s named Gordon, played by Joel Edgerton. From there, things get increasingly awkward as Gordon goes from unwanted acquaintance to third wheel to full-on stalker: he shows up at their home unannounced, he sets up their tv, he fills their empty koi pond with koi. Gordon’s behavior becomes so strange that Simon has to break ties. Things go downhill from there.
If I seem too harsh calling The Gift unsuccessful, I should also compliment its positives. The acting is terrific, the soundtrack is perfectly suited to the events, and the direction and visuals create a convincing atmosphere of alienation. There are shots in this film that feel like contemporary riffs on the deafening quiet of Edward Hopper’s paintings. Edgerton’s direction even accomplishes something I didn’t think possible: he uses a montage in a clever, natural way that communicates a message and contributes to the story. This is to say he’s infused life and purpose into a cliched device, which is one mark of a talented artist. This is a remarkably competent film.
So why my initial doubt? Edgerton takes on more than this film can handle. Think of The Gift as a comic book movie with too many villains and too many subplots. This movie covers a lot of thematic ground: trust, intimacy, addiction, regret, memory, guilt, and, as the publicity for this movie states, “are bygones ever really bygones?” This range of topics draws terrific performances out of the actors, particularly Rebecca Hall, but it puts too much strain on the story.
A further strain comes from the generic confusion. For the first thirty minutes or so, The Gift feels like Cape Fear or Creep, with an obsessed lunatic tracking a family. But the focus shifts, in the second act, to Robyn and Simon’s relationship. Gordo stalks Robyn and Simon, poisons their fish, and even kidnaps their dog for a few days (again, the dog isn’t hurt). All this, of course, makes Robyn curious about Gordo and Simon’s former relationship. As Robyn delves into Simon’s past, the film becomes part drama and part tragedy. It turns out Simon bullied Gordo in high school, going so far as to start a rumor that ruined Gordo’s life. Robyn and Simon’s marriage is strained by her attempts to uncover this, as Simon refuses to discuss any of it. He’s so affected by his past that he even becomes verbally abusive in his attempts to keep her from finding the truth. He has reason to be afraid Robyn will find something— it turns out that Simon is guilty of everything from spreading life-ruining sexual rumors to spying on, then sabotaging, a business rival. Robin and Simon’s marriage begins to collapse as a result of her discoveries, even as she becomes pregnant.
The final act is where The Gift falls apart. At a party to celebrate Simon’s new job, a business rival Simon sabotaged attacks his home, and Robyn finally realizes just how low her husband is willing to sink. The stress of the attack sends her into labor, and, once the baby’s born, she tells Simon she wants to separate. Up to this point, the film’s still a tragedy and a moral drama, but when Simon leaves Robin at the hospital and heads back to the house, he finds a dvd from Gordo. The DVD reveals that Gordo had been sneaking into the house for months, spying on them, and, worst of all, drugged Robin, and may have raped her unconscious body (he films himself straddling her body, then cuts off the camera before anything takes place). Simon rushes back to the hospital, where Gordo has just dropped off flowers for Robin. Simon’s unable to catch him, however, and Gordo calls Simon’s cell and taunts him, telling Simon he won’t reveal whether or not he raped Robin. This coda is what changes the film from thriller to tragedy to something else. To this point, the characters have behaved in believable grown-up fashion; their problems and reactions have all been the “adult situations” that frightened Calvin. Gordo’s actions revealed in the DVD, however, are shocking and unusual enough to make him a monster. The Gift transforms into a non-supernatural monster movie in the space of a single scene. It’s too abrupt a change, and it throws off the cohesion The Gift maintained in its transformation between the first and second acts.
Gordo’s actions are too monstrous to fit the rest of the film’s tone. If Gordo really would rape a woman, and/or torment someone (even someone as rotten as Simon) with the open-ended question of whether or not he raped his wife, he’s just as bad as Simon. As a result, Gordo forfeits whatever sympathy the viewer feels for him, which has driven the film to that point. There’s no pleasure to be taken in his revenge, because it’s so morally repulsive. To be fair, I don’t think that’s the kind of pleasure Edgerton intended, but it would be nearly impossible not to at least feel some catharsis on seeing someone as bad as Simon fall apart.
The suggestion made by Gordo’s revelation, and the film’s ending, is undoubtedly nihilistic. The plot’s progression to this point makes sense: Simon’s revealed as bad, there’s an implication he’ll pay for his actions, and Robin seems ready to make a break with her toxic marriage. Then, out of nowhere, the former victim who started Simon’s deserved downfall turns out to be an utter reptile. The film seems headed towards an expected catharsis, but then jumps the tracks, and leaves us with one overarching conclusion: people are capable of horrible, horrible things. If that’s the message, wouldn’t a monster movie, or something like it, be a better vehicle for such a nihilistic suggestion?
The theater critic Richard Eder once noted a “confusion of purpose” in Sondheim’s original Sweeney Todd. He argued that the artistic excellence of the musical didn’t match the sensationalistic subject matter. The commodity cannibalism and other monstrous actions that “need a certain disbelief to be tolerable…(are) given too much artistic power” in the musical. In other words, the artistry was so good that the viewer expected a corresponding excellence in the message. All the viewer got from Sweeney, though, was “an intensity that is unacceptable.” I feel the same way about The Gift. For all the intelligence of its crafting, the film leaves the viewer feeling hollow. That said, this is still an incredibly promising directorial debut for Joel Edgerton. While I may not rewatch The Gift for pleasure any time soon, I’ll certainly be interested to see how Edgerton develops, should he take the helm on another picture.