STX/Blumhouse (2015) 108 min. R
Director: Joel Edgerton
Screenplay: Joel Edgerton
Cinematography: Eduard Grau; Editing: Luke Doolan
Production Design: Richard Sherman; Set Decoration: Matthew Flood Ferguson; Costumes: Terry Anderson; Score: Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans
Stars: Jason Bateman (Simon Callen), Rebecca Hall (Robyn Callen), Joel Edgerton (Gordon “Gordo” Mosley), Tim Griffin (Kevin Keeler), Allison Tolman (Lucy), Adam Lazarre-White (Ron), Beau Knapp (Detective Walker), Wendell Pierce (Detective Mills), P.J. Byrne (Danny McDonald), David Denman (Greg), Busy Philipps (Duffy)
For some reason, I kept getting The Gift mixed up with The Box, which also used the Pandora concept as a basis to explore the untapped potential for darkness in seemingly ordinary, unthreatening people. In an overheated summer full of typically hotheaded action blockbusters, this low-key, largely introspective psychological thriller is the real surprise gift to moviegoers and it’s not even close to Christmas yet. Despite being riddled with horror movie clichés and transparent script convolutions which allow audiences to anticipate most of what’s coming, this remains an intriguing, quality sleeper attractively wrapped for our predilection.
With screens already reeling from revenge themed scary movies like Unfriended and The Gallows, The Gift instead suggests a Fatal Attraction for our cyber bullying age, and many critics have noted the similarity to other yuppies-in-peril pressure cookers from the late ’80s, early ’90s. But it proves far richer, undermining those initial, limited expectations. What marks The Gift as different is that the abuse isn’t set in the present but in the past, before the internet era gave the subject a black eye by bringing it out into the open. And it shows it to have been just as emotionally scarring prior to the age of viral video as now, when it gets so much free publicity and press. The Gift hasn’t been imparted with a fully matured, adult sensibility so much as the hindsight of adults who never outgrew their territorial playground mentality.
Rather than suggesting bullying to be a normal part of the growing process, dismissing it with the old adage that boys will be boys, it shows how deeply such events can impact the psychology and self-image, afflicting the victim with post-traumatic stress. The Gift even has the effrontery to suggest it can alter the course of one’s life, as it has that of Gordon “Gordo” Mosley (played by director-screenwriter Joel Edgerton), the disgruntled former victim of bully Simon Callen (Jason Bateman), who spread a malicious lie about him in high school. Still nursing a grudge over it, when Gordon unexpectedly reappears, a blast from the past, in the lives of Simon and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) the slow burn payback he’s been stoking so long spirals into motion. Though he claims to be perfectly willing to forgive and forget, we can’t help suspecting ulterior motives.
The premise at work here has served as impetus for countless, otherwise unmotivated horror movies, dating at least as far back as Thirteen Women. But that one, in which a Eurasian Myrna Loy (!) sought to avenge her treatment by racist sorority sisters was warped, as are most movies of a similar bent, by its own attempt to turn the avenger into the unspeakable harpy of the piece, rather than those who had mistreated her. It’s the same way the Glen Close character was treated in Fatal Attraction, but The Gift plays things more carefully. Rather than presenting Gordo as an unrepentant bogeyman, it toys with our own assumptions and preconceived notions, encouraging the instinctive, knee-jerk responses we’ve built up after a lifetime of horror movie going, in order to embed misleading thoughts in our minds.
Did Gordo really poison the koi fish pond, for instance? After all, just when we think we’re going to find the family dog boiling in a pot on the stove, he shows back up safe and sound, pawing at the front door (the movie’s best jump out of your seat moment). And most distressing of all, did he actually go through with raping Robyn and fathering her baby as a final coup d’état? Planting such seeds of doubt, Iago fashion, The Gift leaves it up to us to decide just how guilty the ostensible villain of the piece actually is, assessing and assigning where the real blame lies for the situation. In essence director Edgerton is playing the same cat and mouse game with audiences that his Gordo is with Simon, which probably shouldn’t be surprising since the man crafting the film is also the one playing the part of puppet master in it. Edgerton also manipulates us into imagining most of the frights taking place, and once what he’s doing registers, we can relax and be amused at how little actual ‘horror’ this horror movie contains.
Since Gordo is pulling all the strings imperceptibly, behind the scenes, we’re not privy to his handiwork (which is intended to make audiences want to sit through The Gift a second time). And dramatically speaking, this creates a problem since we want to learn more about him than the script can give us without giving away the whole game. If Gordo’s going to remain enigmatic, we need to be kept in the dark about him, harboring our own unfounded suspicions. The director, who’s cast himself in this crucial part plays it in an understated manner so that we can’t get a full read on him, which is fine, but too often his attempt to approximate social awkwardness causes him to come across as slightly leaden even in those moments where the loco part could benefit from some humor and panache. Just because his character is repressed doesn’t mean his performance has to be.
Part of the Aussie wave that began inundating Hollywood at the beginning of the millennium, Edgerton is the sort of character actor you’ve seen in a hundred different roles (Animal Kingdom, Warrior, Zero Dark Thirty, The Great Gatsby, Exodus etc.) but can never definitively place. Sporting doughy, unformed features that appear perfectly malleable to being imprinted with whoever he might be playing, he thoroughly subsumes his own personality and disappears completely into each part. His scenes here were reportedly shot in seven days, the rapid fire recording schedule likely intended to get them out of the way so he could fully concentrate on helming his directorial debut. At least he had no doubts about what he wanted from himself as an actor, expediting the pace. Edgerton’s performance doesn’t possess the more nuanced, finer shadings a slower shoot would have permitted him to develop over time, but if there doesn’t seem much to it until reflection, the slightly off characterization he turned in still ensures his acting day job remains a fail-safe to fall back on if the directorial thing doesn’t work out. It’s a stellar showcase, allowing him to play wacky, mysterious, perverse, damaged, amusingly awkward, ominous and sympathetic. A triple threat, he’s written himself the sort of surefire, scene-stealing part he would have been a fool to pass up as an actor, and directed himself to maximum effect in it.
As director, he’s gifted this otherwise alienating character with many privileged moments intended to endear him to the audience, such as his initial, misguided effort to be an adult about the past, proving to Simon how far he’s risen above it by inviting him over to his ritzy home for dinner. Or his silent response, a benumbed, furtively wounded double take, when he happens across the kitchen note board where Simon had crossed out ‘Gordo’ and replaced it with ‘Wierdo,’ the cruel nickname he’d been hounded with in high school. He makes no effort to fight back as Simon’s feigned ‘apology’ in the alley results in his suppressed hostility slowly bubbling back up to the surface in torrents of abuse, ending with him laying into Gordo as he did in their youth for causing him so much trouble and making him look bad in front of his wife. Just as his immature use of emojis hint at his arrested development, when Gordo doubles up into a fetal position, it further indicates he’s regressing back to an earlier state, flashing back to when Simon used to abuse him in similar fashion. Accepting the beating stoically, he remains as determined not to give his tormentor the satisfaction of seeing his pain. Far from doing as well as he’d like to pretend though, Gordo’s failure to launch and make any substantial gains in life, financially, socially, sexually, is attributed to the sense of inferiority repeatedly beat into him as a kid. The Gift isn’t nearly as edgy as the material keeps suggesting it should be. Edgerton’s script doesn’t possess the depth or clarity one wishes it to and as director he permits far too many of the tangential characters floating through proceedings to remain fuzzy and ill-defined. We’re never given to fully understand precisely why Simon did what he did (“Because he could,” isn’t a satisfactory enough reason). And his accomplice in crime, that chiropractor character Robyn visits (David Denman), is seemingly let off the hook before he even focuses into a feasible construct. The amusing way Beau Knapp, as the junior investigator, fiddles around with his character, proving weirdos come in all ages and walks of life, sets us up to expect he’s to be reoccurring comic relief since we know the cops are caught in that classic catch-22 and can’t take peremptory action until the perp makes a move to incriminate himself. For all The Gift’s intentional twists and turns, the simple fact that he never assumes the prominent place in proceedings we’re made to feel he should, serves as the most misleading red herring of all.
Rather than wrapping everything up in a neat little bow, The Gift doles out driblets of information that demand further exploration. Did Gordo immediately join the army right out of school in an attempt to prove what a tough guy he was, clearing his suspect sexuality after his manhood had been impugned? And, more to the point, was he discharged (for unbecoming conduct) because he couldn’t? The security file Simon pulls on him reveals his arrest for the attempted kidnapping of a minor, with no indication that he was acting with anything other than carnal intentions. But if Simon’s smear about his being molested in high school by an older student, the lie which ruined his youth and stunted his burgeoning sexuality, was entirely unfounded, why then does Gordo, according to his record, appear to be repeating the same self-destructive cycle in adulthood as many survivors of molestation actually do? And Gordo being labeled as gay after he was said to have been molested, which denotes forced relations against his will, seems an absurdly ignorant assumption for everyone to leap to. In truth, we never get a clear impression of his sexual orientation, though there’s every indication he’s secretly attracted to Robyn, surreptitiously filming her with his telescopic lens. In what form and to what degree however remains ambiguous. Certainly he feels a deep and abiding bond with her as mutual victims of Simon’s bullying.
Leaving his sexuality indeterminate is probably a smart move on Edgerton’s part. He wants to dilute audience response of any hint of homophobia during the majority of the time we’re meant to be frightened off by Gordo’s actions, assuming he’s some crazed stalker as he insinuates himself into the happy couple’s life like a Greek bearing gifts. Interestingly, he doesn’t embark upon his offensive until after Simon mocks him behind his back at dinner, nor step it up until after he openly attacks him in the alley, pushing him over the edge by proving he hasn’t changed at all, making it impossible to let bygones be bygones. His subsequent, self-assertive actions, choosing not to remain a passive victim any longer, taking up for himself as an adult in a way he couldn’t as a kid, is actually a major step in his personal healing process. So it’s no coincidence that Gordo’s removing that arm sling in the final glimpse we get of him. Having exorcised his personal demons by standing up to his childhood bully, fighting back (in his own fashion) for the first time in his life, he no longer feels so helpless or hobbled, an emotional and social cripple.
That unspeakable dark secret the men are concealing may seem a might flimsy to hang all this glinting melodrama on, but it serves a higher purpose. The fact that Gordo’s bullying is imparted with a sexual basis here just ups the ante. If everybody who ever hurled a spurious accusation about another person’s sexual identity in order to make them seem suspect, singling them out as a convenient target worthy of abuse were similarly called out, there would be precious few people who wouldn’t stand just as accused as Simon. Which is all part of the larger game The Gift is playing with the audience. We may never have committed adultery like Michael Douglas in Fatal Attraction, and hence feel as deserving as he was of calling down the vengeance of the furies on our heads (in The Gift’s case retribution is accompanied by strains from The Ride of the Valkyries as opposed to Madame Butterfly), but most of us, straight or gay, stand guilty at some point in time and to some degree or other, of casting sexual aspersions in an overt or unintentional effort to disparage someone’s reputation.
That such spite didn’t wield the same destructive results it’s said to have in The Gift is through no fault of our own, making us squirm down in our chairs. We can only hope our own dark, long-buried deeds don’t one day rear up in similar fashion, holding a mirror to the past in order to make a monkey out of us. The Gift wants to use horror as a deterrent to bullying by placing us all in the seat of the accused. While the movie verges uncomfortably at times on becoming a shallow, finger-wagging screen sermon on the importance of atoning for one’s sins, the sort of teen mentality it could wield the most beneficial effect on will likely bypass this tale of middle-aged adults grousing over sour grapes, believing it doesn’t speak directly to them.
But part of what The Gift points out is that bullying isn’t simply a childhood stage one goes through. To the contrary, if left unchecked it can continue to spiral like a malignant growth, as Simon demonstrates when he reenacts the same tried and true smear campaign orchestrated in school to try and sabotage his rival for a business promotion. His motivations may have changed and the stakes be much higher, but the easy targets of his abuse remain much the same, so interchangeable in fact that we initially mistake his irate co-worker for Gordo himself when a brick is hurled through his plate glass window. Once a bully always a bully, despite Simon’s claim not to be arrested in the past like the man he once tormented. Hidden beneath a mask of civility, his latent, domineering tendencies are never lurking far from the surface, just waiting the necessary provocation to rear their ugly head. Revealing his dark side simply validates everything Gordo had said about Simon, showing us nothing had been blown out of proportion at all, as Robyn had been assured to allay her concerns. I’ve never been a big fan of Jason Bateman, which may explain why I’m more impressed with him in this part, as he succumbs to an increasingly immature mean streak, than I ever have been before. Having appeared as other types of overgrown adolescents in movies like Juno and Bad Words as well as the jumble of Disconnect, which featured a memorable subplot centered around the same bullying theme, he’s thoroughly well versed in such roles.
An avenging conscience, Gordo’s unexpected reappearance forces the issue, goading his Simon to reveal his true colors so that Robyn can see her husband for what he truly is. Last year, Gone Girl made us paranoid about just how well we really know our spouses, and The Gift presses the point even further by showing up the husband here for the actual monster he is in his refusal to accept that he’s done anything wrong, has anything even to apologize to Gordo for. While we see all the warning signs Robyn has blinded herself to, how Simon answers for her, intimidates her with accusatory glances and hostile questions, has subtly manipulated her into giving up her job to move across country and work from home, presumably so she won’t stress herself out and endanger the baby they’re trying to conceive, but really so he can keep her even further dependent on him and under his thumb, how his psychological and emotional abuse has driven her to drink, pills, all the undue stresses that undoubtedly caused her to miscarry their baby in the first place. As far as their relationship is concerned what Simon says is still law, regardless of her own opinions and input. The forms of emotional abuse he subjects her to may be different from his physical cruelty toward Gordo, but the intentions behind them, the underlying mentality of this man who espouses a Darwinian philosophy of dog eat dog in order to assert himself as alpha male over everyone in his sphere, remains much the same. Made to feel like an awkward outcast herself amidst her husband’s new clique of successful, confident, upwardly mobile business acquaintances, Robyn might not understand why the situation with Gordo gnaws at her conscience so much, causing her to lose sleep, suffer fainting spells and jump out of her skin at the slightest provocation, but we do. They’re both in the same boat more or less, so it’s little wonder that she bonds so quickly and profoundly with this virtual stranger.
With her long, gracile limbs and empathetic spirit, Rebecca Hall, the tony young British actress with long standing family ties to the Royal Shakespearean theatah is a different sort of leading lady, and we take to her like we do few actresses in horror film, much the way we did the equally winsome, frail-looking Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby, who was also made to feel crazy by her husband for imagining she was being hounded and haunted by nefarious forces. And like Rosemary, Robyn too will find herself equally mistaken about precisely who she should really be wary of. It’s specifically because we like her so much that we trust her favorable first impression of Gordo and take to him as well, inducing us to see his better qualities same as she does. And this man who is attracted to her, as her husband suspects, and certainly doesn’t have many friends to speak of, returns her kindness tenfold, ensuring that she, as much as Simon, gets precisely what she deserves (“I believe that the bad things in life, they can be a gift.”). Apart from the actual baby she so desperately wanted, he opens Robyn’s eyes to the sort of man she married before it’s too late, the greatest gift Gordo could possibly have given her.