THE GIFT (2015)
Director: Joel Edgerton
Cast: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Allison Tolman, David Denman, Busy Philipps, Kate Aselton
MPAA Rating: (for language)
Running Time: 1:48
Release Date: 8/7/15
Review by Mark Dujsik | August 6, 2015
The most intriguing section of The Gift forces us to look at a character we have believed to be a victim as a villain. If that's the case, it would mean the character we are certain is a villain is actually a victim. The movie's finale resolves everything by raising another, ultimately unanswered question, which would be a fascinating solution, if not for how repugnant that question is.
Such vagueness is, of course, essential when discussing a movie such as this, in which most of the fun comes from the extensive twisting and turning of our expectations and our understanding of who these characters are. How, though, to approach the discussion of a movie in which the final twist ceases any and all fun by taking a sharp turn into the realm of the deplorable? I suppose the best way to handle the situation is to directly challenge the ending while being indirect about the specifics.
The problem isn't necessarily what happens or, since we and one character are left questioning whether or not something occurred, what might have happened. That fits the rest of the movie, which repeatedly asserts that its characters are not what they seem—that they have sinister motives and are capable of destroying the lives of other people for their own benefit or, more disturbingly, for their own amusement.
What's troubling here is more a matter of tone and of misguided focus. The movie is a bit too flippant in presenting an unsettling possibility. It sees that last plot twist as a battle of wits and wills between two characters, but in doing so, it completely ignores that a third character may be a victim. Whether the character is a victim or not, the movie has reduced that particular character's role to one of an unsuspecting, possibly sacrificial pawn in a demented mind game.
We might not be expected to admire the method of that final, psychological blow, but writer/director Joel Edgerton (his feature debut as a director) certainly wants us to admire the perceived cleverness of the comeuppance. Instead, it just leaves a bad taste.
Up until that point, though, the movie is an effective game. It takes one form and then almost imperceptibly shifts into another. The plot starts as a standard sort of thriller about a man whose apparent obsession leaves other characters constantly looking over their shoulders. The man is Gordo (Edgerton), a seemingly nice guy who's happy to discover that an old high school classmate has moved into his neighborhood.
Simon (Jason Bateman, quite good as a character whose offhand sarcasm is just the tip of the iceberg of his true nature), the former classmate, and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall, who remains consistently dependable at playing characters who are vulnerable without having the strength sapped from them) have bought a house in the suburbs. They want to escape the stress of the city after Robyn suffered an anxiety-provoked "incident." The two are hoping to have a child.
Gordo starts showing up to the house while Simon is away at work. He leaves gifts for the couple—a bottle of wine and a case of fish food to go along with the fish he put in the front-yard pond after Robyn told him in passing that she wanted fish there. Simon is uncomfortable with the man they called "Gordo the Weirdo" in high school turning up uninvited to his house while he's absent. At an awkward dinner party, where the other "invited couples" had to "cancel" at the last minute, Simon tells Gordo that he doesn't think they should be friends.
The fish end up dead, and Robyn starts hearing sounds in and around the house. A cryptic letter from Gordo states that he was willing to let "bygones be bygones" with Simon.
Gordo disappears for a considerable stretch of the story, opening up a query into the meaning behind that enigmatic line about bygones. Robyn starts investigating, feeling slightly guilty about how Simon and, by extension, she treated a man whose only faults seem to be too much eagerness to be helpful and an innocent misunderstanding of the concept of personal boundaries.
What starts as a fairly generic story about a potential stalker, complete with the overly generic trappings of jump scares and scenes of Robyn slowly walking toward what could be a threat, becomes something entirely different. The real evil here is of the everyday variety. The threat is more mundane and much more familiar. It centers on the distrust between two people who should know each other well and the way a small but immoral act can have consequences far beyond a person's intentions.
That might also be why the movie's final half-revelation feels so odious. It's not only the suggestion of what might have happened but also how divorced that implication and its ramifications are from what this story becomes. It's thematically inconsistent, and it also depends on a character acting in a way that ignores the character's past experience. In the end, The Gift goes beyond being a pessimistic examination of corrupt people by itself engaging in cynical methods to arrive there.
Copyright © 2015 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.
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