Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Gift (2015)

Film: The Gift (2015)
Stars: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton
Director: Joel Edgerton
Oscar History: No nominations
Snap Judgment Ranking: 2/5 stars

I have a few rules about going to the movies that I try really hard not to break, at least in terms of what movies I end up seeing.  Part of those rules is that I have an internal list of about 4-5 actors whose films I don't see on principle.  Blake Lively, Ryan Reynolds, and in particular Jason Bateman I keep making myself the same promise over and over again that I will never endure one of their movies again (the other two I generally tend to avoid, Rachel McAdams and Vince Vaughn, made watching the second season of True Detective impossible even if it starred Colin Farrell, an actor I see in pretty much everything).  However, even with actors this run-of-the-mill, they're too big of stars not to have an intriguing costar (like Helen Mirren) or be in a surprisingly well-reviewed film (like The Gift) or be in a film that your aunt and grandmother really want to see (there had to be a reason I saw The Age of Adaline, which I will admit was not the travesty I thought it would be).  Those great reviews brought me to The Gift, which is batting a shockingly strong 92% on Rotten Tomatoes, and so I am venturing into Bateman territory again against my better judgment.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film is one of those movies that has a lot of interesting intentions and is well-crafted, but ultimately doesn't go anywhere and doesn't really give us any proper horror.  The first half of the film, in my opinion, was dreadful to the point where I thought about walking out and reading the ending of the film on Wikipedia to see what I was about to be in-store for, quite frankly (I've only done that once before in a film, but that was because the tension was getting too much for me in Compliance and I needed to figure out if it was going to go to the frightening place it was about to go, which of course it did...this walkout felt a little more driven by the summer cold I've been trying to shake to no avail and wishing I was watching a better movie under an afghan on my couch).  The film is all bumps and "why is he so weird?" in the way it approaches its mood.  We have this obscenely wealthy couple Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Hall), who live one of those upper-class lifestyles that only exist in movies where there are koi ponds and windows for days, and the wife just gets to jog and randomly work on her computer all day, while the husband seems to just glad-hand at the office.  And then we have this clear juxtaposition, an old high school-classmate of Simon's named Gordo (Edgerton), whom he doesn't really remember all that well but who seems desperately lonely and sad all the time, frequently finding reasons to send them beautiful gifts and lovely cards but not having a romantic relationship, career, or home of comparable value.

The reality about the first half of the movie is that Gordo genuinely seems really nice, and Simon seems like a jerk from the beginning so some of the later twists don't seem that surprising.  Were it not for the creepy music and the abruptness of finding presents at the door that a jump scare elicits, Gordo seems like a kind person, and this is one of a few times in the movie where Edgerton's direction and screenplay feel a little bit misused.  From the all-too-telling trailer (I read on a different blog recently that teasers are always better than trailers, and I'm fully onboard going forward with just having teasers since The Gift's trailer gives away all but the last fifteen minutes of the movie) we know that Gordo isn't what he seems, but the more interesting thing about him is-what if he is?  As the film progresses we get the reality that Simon is, in fact, a true villain and not just a cartoon-y one you see in the cinema.  He's the sort of bully that would make up a rumor about Gordo being gay and being molested in high school just because he could, and the sort of person who would destroy another man who has the gaul to apply for the same job as him.

Simon is supposedly the bad guy, which makes the final fifteen minutes all the more ridiculous.  At this point, Simon's career and wife gone from him, we get into the reality that Gordo has in fact been gaslighting his wife (he has a key to their home), been spying on them at night (though haven't these people heard of curtains?), and that he broke into the house, and he leaves the question mark over whether Robyn was raped by Gordo and might be the father of her child.  The film ends with Simon now gone from his wife and in tears over his shattered existence, and Gordo walking away, taking down his sling showing that he wasn't injured after all.

This ending would work but for two reasons.  One, it's the less-interesting answer to the entire question-we get no sense as to Gordo's motives or his psyche.  Quite frankly, Gordo is completely unknown in his current skin-we genuinely learn nothing about him and instead just stick to the married couple.  We only know a couple of truths about the man, which would be cool and sneaky (the way we waste almost no time on the people we consider beneath us), except that there's a gigantic background check file on the man sitting in Jason Bateman's possession for most of the film, and Rebecca Hall has read it too.  This shows that the audience is the only one left in the dark, and that's not fair or smart, it's just lazy writing.  Robyn, Simon, and the audience is dying to get to know Gordo more so the dismissed poor guy angle doesn't work, and yet the director covers it up because it makes it more titillating toward the end of the film.  That's pretty damn cheap if you ask me.

Secondly, without this sense of identity we don't get a proper picture as to what his goal was-was it just to destroy Simon all-along or was it just after he was rejected that it happened?  The recording that we get of Simon disparaging him is before Simon asks him to leave the couple be, and if it is the case that he just wants to exact revenge on Simon later in the film, why would he spend so much time torturing his poor wife, who was kind to him the entire film.  Rebecca Hall is giving the best performance of the three (and is miles-away the best actor of the trio), but her character becomes "victim" pretty damn fast in the final moments of the film, becoming a mere pawn for the two main characters to play against each other.  It's not a particularly forward-looking feminist movie, even if you subtract the distasteful way the film hints that Robyn may have been raped which feels tagged-on and unnecessary.

All-in-all, I get why this got the good reviews that it did-it's the sort of film that elicits discussion and perhaps it shows a director that might have an interesting perspective behind the camera (it's a first effort, and there's a tautness to the lensing of scenes that should be admired), but overall I left particularly underwhelmed and wishing that I had stuck with my no-Bateman rule.  What were your thoughts if you've seen The Gift?  Are you in the pro-or-con camp?  Share in the comments!

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