On its surface, The Gift (2015) looks like a million other thrillers. An attractive, upper class couple moves to the suburbs to start a family and escape demons from the past, until a sinister force encroaches on the present. It’s a genre so well-trodden, the twists and turns usually write themselves. The villain will enter friendly and become more ferocious with every turn of the screw. If the family has a dog in the first act, he’ll be dead and buried by the end of the second, and the whole business will drive a wedge in the marriage that can only be healed by a climactic explosion of violence.
But with The Gift, first time director (and writer, and co-star) Joel Edgerton seems aware of these tropes, and more than that…He knows that we know, anticipates our expectations and then gives you something just a little different. He does this again and again until you are rendered incapable of guessing what will happen next.
The film opens with Robyn and Simon (Rebbeca Hall and Jason Bateman) as they get settled into their new home in the Hollywood Hills. Simon’s a big shot sales representative on his way up the ladder. Robyn was an interior decorator back in Chicago, but the circumstances have begun to shift her decorating duties to just the one home. As spacious and airy as this new home may be, at least one of the inhabitants will come to view it as a prison.
In conversations between the couple and among friends and neighbors, we get clues about what went so wrong for them in Chicago and the ways in which they have tried to cope. Edgerton’s approach to this exposition is subtle and economical. He trusts us to get what he’s laying down, and rewards those who are on their toes and catching things that others might miss, right up to the end.
Among thrillers, too often the best we can hope for is one we can laugh at (e.g. The Boy Next Door), as their caricatures descend into hysteria. Good thrillers take imperfect but relatable people and pit them against unpredictable elements to inspire genuine, thought-provoking dread. To get further into the thematic elements I can’t really avoid spoilers, so consider this first section my endorsement for the movie—and proof that the twists are not just arbitrary, but an essential part of the narrative and the overall effect of the film.
Have you seen it? Good. Let’s dive in a little deeper.
The film’s insidious gift giver, Gordo (played by Edgerton), is the obvious villain, but as events unfold, it becomes clear that Simon has a dark heart of his own. He’s a controlling, ambitious brown-noser who dishes out insults with a casual maliciousness, and any empathy he displays is the result of mimicking and practice. He’s not just a sociopath but a living condemnation of modern capitalism. He says things like, “This world’s about winners and losers.” And, “Who you became is your own fault.”
Gordo may have made his own choices about becoming who he is, but Simon played a part in it. We learn that Simon spread ugly, malicious rumors about “Gordo the Weirdo” in high school, and never bothered to correct them, thus sending Gordo into a tailspin of pain and trauma that echoed throughout the rest of his life. Simon claims at first not to remember Gordo from school, and we take it at face value. But when we learn more about their very eventful shared past, could that possibly be? Simon touts one of his life strategies repeatedly when he instructs his wife: “Let’s just forget about it.” “Put it behind us and time will heal it.” And “It’s really important to not look back.” Perhaps his defenses are so entrenched, or perhaps the event meant so little to him that he actually forgot it happened. It’s impossible to know, and one of the film’s lingering ambiguities.
There’s no ambiguity for Gordo; his raison d’etre is vengeance. Throughout the film, we see an obsessive, elaborate plan unfolding to terrorize and intimidate the couple, but we don’t know the end game. It escalates with each gift. First a bottle of wine left on the doorstep. Then glass cleaner (for their many windows), which gets him in the door for tea. Next he’s filling their pond with koi fish when the couple’s not at home. It’s effusive and creepy from the start, but every time the situation calls for a step backward, Robyn beckons him closer, because she sees herself in him, and sometimes, it’s easier to protect someone else instead of yourself.
The situation reaches its head when Gordo invites them over for a dinner party with no other guests at a mansion that obviously doesn’t belong to him. Simon’s been fed up for awhile now, and he tells Gordo to get out of their lives forever in a conversation neither the audience nor Robyn witness. But Gordo continues to haunt her sleepless nights even when he is physically gone, and Robyn unravels with guilt and curiosity over what has happened until she finds the resolve to take action on her own.
In Rebecca Hall’s portrayal of Robyn, we meet a woman who is naturally kind, eager to please and formidable. Simon repeatedly tries to cast her as vulnerable and weak with a manipulative dose of “what’s best for you” flippancy (especially regarding her medications and her push for him to make amends with Gordo), but we get many indications of her strength and resolve. It is made most salient by reoccurring scenes of Robyn jogging—another trope of the genre and a clichéd one at that, but in this case, it fits.
In the end, despite everything she has suffered, it is Robyn who maintains her independence, dignity and compassion. The two antagonists in her orbit have ended a marriage that probably shouldn’t have happened in the first place, but have not destroyed her. On the one side, you have Gordo, whose pathological need for vengeance has consumed his life, tainting all his gestures. On the other side, you have Simon, who might just be considered a jerk in another movie—but part of the power of thrillers is showing how flaws we take for granted lead to a darker place.
Simon’s flippancy is the banality of evil, which disclaims what is moral or ethical or simply merciful, acting solely for one’s own benefit without regard for the consequences of others. We see so much of this from leaders of business and government that the Simons of the world pass under our attention. There’s the CEO Martin Shkreli who made headlines recently when he raised the price of a life saving drug over 4,000% overnight. During Mitt Romney’s 2008 campaign, a story came out about Romney and a couple of his buddies in High School holding a kid down and cutting off his hair. What was most disturbing about that revelation was Romney’s complete inability to apologize or feel remorse, to insist instead that’s just what kids do: They bully. When people like this run our government and businesses, you might very well be married to one and not even notice—until something more specifically malevolent comes for it.
The sort of calculated revenge in The Gift would be a rare case. (In real life, it is probably more likely to end in a quick act of violence.) But Gordo is so slick that even when he suffers the violence of Simon, it is his old bully who faces the larger consequences. Simon delivers a half-hearted, condescending apology at a bar (at Robyn’s behest only), and the conversation winds up with Gordo’s arm apparently broken and his face smashed against the pavement, because bullies don’t change.
By the end, Gordo has successfully realized his revenge. In the last shot, he casually removes his sling to reveal that the broken arm was a performance, which calls everything that came before into question. Was the whole awkward schmuck thing an act entirely? We know he really is the kind of guy who runs trivia nights awkwardly at bars. We know he was in an out of institutions. The rest is not so clear cut.
More than anything, The Gift is that rare thriller capable of keeping us guessing on its own terms, but it plays even more with people who are accustomed to the thriller genre and think they know what’s coming because of it. The dog disappears, sure, but then he mysteriously returns. We’re sure Robyn is going to cut herself with that sharp knife in the kitchen, but then she slips on the spilled Gatorade instead. The hits keep coming, and fates are left uncertain, but the depths of each character has been laid out: the ugliness of Simon; the strength of Robyn; the void of Gordo. To play on a different sort of cliche: The Gift is a film that just keeps on giving.