There is a sub-genre within the thriller genre that thrived during the late ’80s and ’90s which centers on the plight of upwardly mobile, mostly white people encountering disturbed individuals – sometimes lovers, sometimes friends, and sometimes obsessed hangers-on. The good white folk try to navigate the shoals of propriety and the submerged outcroppings of potentially violent psychosis that form the course of the (often unwanted) relationship. Some examples of this genre are Fatal Attraction, Single White Female, Fear, or often any film from the era with Fatal, Deadly, etc. in the title. (Los Angeles based film and video maker Damon Packard has named this genre the “yuppie fear thriller”). The normal course of such a film is that we are introduced to sympathetic yet at least partly clueless, smug, or self-satisfied attractive young white people, who are then either seduced by, stalked by, or simply made confused by a new figure in their lives, often a “friend” who exists in a zone of ambiguity – are they really a friend, or are they threatening? Often these films dramatize the discomfort and confusion that comes from these privileged folk trying to discern if they are over-reacting and paranoid (a process which raises for them the perhaps repressed facts of their social privilege while reinforcing the need to act “appropriately”), or if they are indeed justified in feeling threatened. Often the “threat” plays along the border between interested and overly invested, sometimes being revealed to be truly dangerous, sometimes as a red herring, whose interest is in protecting the yuppie from a threat that said yuppie (and the audience) was unaware of. Anyone who was watching Cinemax in the ’90s has probably seen many, many of these films.
The Gift fits into this genre, and takes its place among the best such stories. I will not say a lot about the plot, simply because this is one case where description can’t do the actual unfolding justice, and also because if you’ve seen the trailer, you’ve seen most of the dramatic moments of the narrative. Often this is a death knell for a thriller, but in the case of The Gift, it is not, as the film is all about how we get from one narrative moment to another, how our understanding and identifications shift as the movie unfolds, and how the characters reveal themselves. That is to say, The Gift is refreshing because there are no shocking revelations, no “gotchas,” no mental gymnastics or surprise endings; it is much more a contemplative chamber piece in which the characters make us reflect on the limits of trust, intimacy, and (perhaps righteous) revenge. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are a youngish couple who have recently relocated from the Chicago area to southern California. Simon has a hot new job at a tech startup, but we also learn that, while this couple seems picture perfect, there are plenty of stress fractures in the relationship. (Part of the reason for leaving Chicago, we come to understand, is that it allows the pair to put a never fully excavated past behind them, at least part of which involved Robyn miscarrying a baby and being addicted to pills). Simon is back on his home turf, and in the first few scenes runs into an old “friend” from high school, Gordo (Joel Edgerton, also director and screenwriter). Gordo is a little awkward, but seems very nice, leaving welcome presents on the steps of the couple’s new home, attempting to draw them into his orbit and, we think, Simon back into a past friendship. Simon seems put off by Gordo to a degree far beyond what is appropriate for his behavior, and Robyn, along with us viewers, tries to remain neutral. She is predisposed to trust Simon, as are we, but she also identifies with Gordo’s awkwardness and senses that Simon is hiding something behind his immature comments and overreactions. Eventually Gordo draws out Simon’s true nature, and we begin to learn the real history of the relationship, as well as the reality of Simon’s character. Our sympathies shift from Simon to Gordo by the end of the film (although staying resolutely with Robyn foremost), but are complicated by revelations about Gordo’s present and his ideas of what represents “justice.”
The Gift builds in intensity, and is a true slow-burn, as the heat comes not from surfaces or the enjoyment of generic expectations satisfied, but from the characters interacting, and how those interactions reveal hidden aspects of each. Robyn is sympathetic throughout, and our allegiance lies with her, but the great thing about having the focus on so few characters is that we do indeed identify with each – there are things about all three that we can relate to, and that cause us to question our own ugliness as theirs is, in turn, each brought forward. The ending of the film is incredibly disturbing, sad, and will stick with you far after you’ve left the theater (indeed, in its darkness and use of gender, it treads where few besides the Italians, and maybe our venerable Mr. Haneke, dare). For an American film, especially a summer thriller with Jason Bateman in it, it is shocking in its implications – suffice to say that Robyn becomes the proving ground for both men. The casting is well done, with Mr. Bateman showing more depth than expected while playing against type. Rebecca Hall seems a bit of a nonentity at first, but we soon discover her underplaying is exactly what her role needs, as she, while seemingly meek and unstable, is indeed the lone voice of “sanity” in the film. Mr. Edgerton does a great job with Gordo, walking the line between friendly but weird and dangerous finely (although we always feel that he is up to something, we also suspect it might be righteous in its motivation). Edgerton does a fine job as writer/director too. The script is subtle, and reveals a true working knowledge of the psychological complexities of men with a traumatic past. He makes use of certain symbols (like the monkey motif that runs throughout the story) very effectively by deploying them sparely, not commenting on them or overly elaborating their “meaning,” but simply letting the imagery work on us. He also has a great sense of visual displacement, as when Robyn, startled while alone in her kitchen, knocks over and spills her Gatorade all over her feet; the subsequent cut reveals her feet covered in yellow liquid, an effective externalization of the effect of her fright that is vulgar in its implications while mirroring our protagonists’ disavowal. (It is also an image that the Italians would enjoy). There is nothing ironic or distancing for us to project the growing intensity and final horrific ambiguity onto, so we are left unresolved in the best possible way. The Gift not only asks us how well we know those closest to us, but even more, how well we know ourselves, and where the difference between the two lies. In perhaps the most heartbreaking scene in the film, Robyn excoriates Simon for letting her think she was paranoid and wrong rather than own up to the reality of his past (and to his present behavior): “I thought I was crazy… and you let me.” How far will any of us go, and who will pay the price, for our inability to look at ourselves as we really are?