Oh, but The Gift is an infuriating movie on so many levels. It can’t decide if it wants to be serious drama or a salacious thriller, and so it’s nowhere near enough of either, and each aspect seems to be laughing at the other. It touches on sensitive, tangled emotional matters that could easily be the basis for either sort of movie — how the effects of bullying in childhood linger into adulthood; how stress and grief can render us unable to function in daily life; how even the most intimate of relationships can be tinged by a lack of trust; and more — but it fumbles all of them so badly that it contradicts itself constantly, as if it doesn’t really understand the pain it is attempting to appropriate. It wants you to doubt who the villain is but doesn’t have the nerve to do anything meaningful with that gambit.
And all of that is before it gets to its “shocking” finale…
I’m trying not to spoil. Suffice to say that The Gift, after descending into emotional idiocy and insufficient intrigue, ends up in a disgusting place that presumes its audience will be horrified at the repulsive suggestion that a medieval notion about marriage has been contravened. Granted, this notion remains something that some real people in the real world still believe, and it’s an awful trope that movies like this one frequently trot out. But it is a trope that deserves to die, not be perpetuated.
I cannot even say that The Gift — written and, in his feature debut, directed by actor Joel Edgerton — starts out promising. Almost from the get-go, we are led down a path that treats Robyn (Rebecca Hall: Transcendence, A Promise) as an appropriate battleground for a war of wills between her husband, Simon (Jason Bateman: A Lego Brickumentary, Horrible Bosses 2), and an old school friend of his, Gordo (Edgerton: Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Great Gatsby). (The movie is totally onboard with the idea that women are properly pawns in games men play.) The couple have just moved back to Los Angeles — to one of those masterpieces of midcentury architecture faced with huge glass windows, all the better for creepazoids to loom out of the darkness beyond into — when they run into Gordo in a shop. Simon doesn’t remember the guy at all, except that he was a bit of an oddball, which seems proven when Gordo shows up at the house without invitation (and clearly having obtained the address in some nefarious way, because they didn’t give it to him) several times, bearing increasingly and inappropriately extravagant gifts, and only when Robyn is home alone. Still, Robyn thinks that while Gordo may be a little socially awkward, he seems okay… but Simon is increasingly weirded out and wants to break off the new forced friendship.
There are several intriguing directions this basic scenario could have gone in: The Gift ignores all of them and choses one that has no ring of emotional truth at all… but which, I suspect, it thinks is incisive and subtly smart. Even though Simon was the one who didn’t want anything to do with Gordo, and rather condescendingly informs others that it’s only because Robyn is “too nice” that she struck up a friendship with the other man, Robyn is suddenly bizarrely cast in the role of the fragile irrational when she begins to see that Gordo might actually be pretty creepy after all. But of course she’s delicate and unreasonable and probably not to be trusted! She lost a baby at some point prior to the beginning of the story here, and went through a “rough patch.” We’re meant to wonder if Simon is now gaslighting his wife, trying to deflect her from getting suspicious about his long-ago high-school relationship with Gordo. But it’s the movie that is gaslighting Robyn, seemingly positioning her in the center of the story when what is meant to be the significant stuff is happening elsewhere.
And The Gift gaslights the audience, too. It sets itself up in a way that seems to be a preemptive attack on detractors by borrowing hot-button and even feminist issues but then treating them in implausible ways. So now for us to complain about them opens us to charges that we’re being unreasonable, or that we cannot see the seriousness of such issues… or, conversely but not at all atypically, that we’re taking it all too seriously. But we’re doing nothing of the sort. Of course some women suffer in the wake of a miscarriage… but not like this. Of course marriages can have trust issues… but not like this. Of course bullies deserve their comeuppance… but not like this.