The Gift (2015, directed by Joel Edgerton) is one of those psychological thrillers that it's best to approach without any fore-knowledge of its plot. All the better to surprise the viewer. Unlike many such films, this isn't a film that turns on a single transparent plot point--a twist, as it were--because it's scenario doesn't deliver just a single shock at the end. It delivers multiple shocks at the end. Almost anything I say about this film is a spoiler, by the way, so if you're inclined to see the film and you're sensitive to spoilers, you should stop reading now and come back after you've seen it.
The Gift follows Simon and Robyn, a young professional couple who have just moved to California from Chicago because Simon has taken an high level job with a network security company. The film hints that the move is also for Robyn's benefit, due to some event in the recent past that has her recovering from an addiction to prescription meds. For Simon, it's a homecoming. While out shopping for furnishings for their new home, the couple encounters Gordo, a man who claims to have gone to high school with Simon. Simon is visibly uncomfortable with Gordo, who insinuates himself into their lives through a series of gifts and small kindnesses. When Simon ultimately refuses them, and moves to break off any kind of friendship with Gordo, Gordo takes it badly. The two have a history, it seems, one that Robyn, to her sorrow, investigates...
The production company responsible for The Gift is Blumhouse Productions, under the aegis of producer Jason Blum. Blumhouse is responsible for more than its share of "nuclear family under threat" horror movies, and on the surface, this film would seem like another along those lines. You have the attractive young couple, the indefinably odd outsider who acts as threat, the gloomy promise of a new house and a new job, the backstory of a troubled marriage. All of those elements are there in films like Sinister and Insidious and they're here in this film in spades. But this film turns them on their head. The Gift's threatening "other" mostly acts as a kind of golden apple of discord thrown into the middle of Robyn and Simon's marriage. Those fissure that other films heal by exerting an external threat are here turned into wedges driving its doomed couple apart. Part of this is the slow revelation of the essential natures of its characters, which are not what they appear on the surface. This is a subtle way of working, largely dependent on its actors, and it pays huge dividends as the film draws to its conclusion.
This film's actors are uncommonly good for a modest to small-budget thriller. Jason Bateman has been making his name in comedies for so long that it's a shock to realize how good he is in dramatic roles. Joel Edgerton is one of those "it" actors that has been working a lot in big budget films lately, though an actor ill used by films like The Thing and Exodus. Directing himself, he understands not only what he can do, but what he wants to do with his character, and the result is a creepy oddness that cannot be said to be overtly threatening, even as it generates deep wells of unease. Cream of the crop, though, is Rebecca Hall, who is the de facto protagonist here in a role that finds her increasingly isolated as an only somewhat willing housewife and as a character who acts as a chess piece in the match between Simon and Gordo. It's Robyn's point of view that provides most of the narrative, including a significant absence of her point of view that's a gaping hole in the film (deliberately so, as it so happens, since this gap provides the film with it's punch at the end).
Edgerton's work as a writer/director shouldn't be surprising, given that he already has one quasi-masterpiece of a suspense film on his resume (The Square (2008), directed by his brother, Nash). He's chosen to work with the gloomy idiom of the contemporary "adult" oriented horror film, with its muted color palette and subdued lighting. It's a cold film. The movie is structured like a classical Gothic, with the a central mystery buried in the past and living in the present. Robyn investigates as best she can like a true and proper Gothic heroine. Like many Gothic narratives, this is psychoanalytic: in investigating what happened between Gordo and Simon in the past, she's peeling away the layers of who Simon really is. The fact that she doesn't much like what she finds beneath the layers is one of the film's cleverest inversions, because Simon begins the movie as one of its ostensible protagonists and becomes one of its primary betes noir. The mounting panic Robyn feels not only from feeling like she's being besieged by Gordo, but also by the slow discovery who her husband really is, turns the screws tight. Within the visual framework he's adopted, Edgerton turns this into a film about perception. Many of the shots inside their house are Robyn's POV, and some of these repeat themselves after new information provides them with meaning (and menace). Robyn is often presented in vulnerable situation, particularly in the shower straining to hear some noise or other. The shower scenes, like the apparent abduction of Robyn and Simon's dog, also function as allusions, as if the film is saying, "You think this film is like this other film, but you're wrong. You'll see."
The end of the film gives me fits. On the one hand, it's a great twist of the tale, one that punches the audience in the gut. You'll pardon me for ruining the film for you, but here's how this plays out: the gap in Robyn's perceptions earlier in the film result from Gordo drugging her. Gordo then films himself appearing to molest her, a video he delivers to Simon as Simon's world comes unglued. In the interim, Robyn becomes pregnant and gives birth to a son. The implication is that Gordo might have raped her and her son might be his. But there's a hint of doubt. This is completely ambiguous. I understand what the film is doing, but I'm not particularly happy that it goes where it goes. What this ending does is turn the film into a rape narrative, turns Robyn into a possession robbed of bodily autonomy by two feuding patriarchal assholes, and leaves the viewer with a vague sense of uncleanness. No doubt, an audience is going to remember this film for its ending. It's fearless about following its imp of the perverse to the bitter end, after all, and this imagery has undeniable power. But it made me want to take a shower afterwards.
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