[major spoilers for The Gift; spoiler-free review here]
“Bad things can be a gift,” says Gordo (Joel Edgerton) to his old high-school classmate, Simon (Jason Bateman), and Simon’s wife, Robyn (Rebecca Hall). What does Gordo mean by this? Is he referring to the fact that he has been bugging them to the point where it could be considered menacing? Is that somehow a “gift” that is going to make their lives better? Of course not. What is the gift of the movie’s title? It’s probably not the bottle of expensive wine Gordo leaves on their doorstep (when he wasn’t given their address) soon after he bumps into them and renews Simon’s acquaintance. And it’s probably not the much more expensive fully grown koi he later deposits in their fish pond. While these range from weirdly stalkerish to wildly inappropriate (and mysterious: we have no idea how Gordo could have possibly afforded an extravagance like the koi), none of that rises to the level of a the gift.
No, Gordo’s “the gift” is something nasty: it is the doubt and the discord he sows between Simon and Robyn. He makes Robyn wonder how well she knows her husband, whom she learns was a terrible bully in high school who did something so awful to Gordo that it ruined Gordo’s life. And she learns that Simon is still a terrible bully who does something to get a promotion at work that is way beyond what a normal, ordinarily ambitious but nonsociopathic person would do. Yet Robyn’s discoveries about her husband don’t ring true on an emotional level. There is no indication that she is so deluded that she hasn’t noticed that her husband is not a nice person before now (and we don’t see any evidence of Simon’s awfulness, either, until very far along in the film), and no indication that she is a victim of the sort of emotional abuse that would allow her to deny the evidence in front of her eyes (which, as I noted, is nonexistent anyway) about how her intimate partner is behaving. As a character, Robyn is so ineptly handled by the script (by Egerton, who also directs) that it reduces her to the most cardboard stereotype of a woman as fragile, confused, unstable merely because she’s a woman… though really it’s the movie itself, not Robyn, that is confused and unstable.
This clichéd depiction of a woman would be offensive enough on its own, but The Gift isn’t finished giving. The doubt that Gordo sows in Simon consists of this: He leads Simon to believe that the baby that Robyn has just given birth to at the end of the movie might not Simon’s at all. Hidden among presents for the baby that Gordo leaves at their house is a “gift” for Simon: a video recording of Gordo sneaking around their house, hovering over Robyn’s unconscious body, and dragged her away; she has passed out thanks to the drugs that Gordo slipped into her sports drink. The obvious implication is that Gordo raped Robyn and that her pregnancy could very well be the result of that. After all, she and Simon had been trying for a long time to have a baby, and it wasn’t working, and then all of a sudden she’s pregnant? How could that have happened?
This is all absurdly crass and repulsive, but here is the truly appalling upshot of The Gift. After a few feints at suggesting that perhaps Simon is the bad guy here, the movie gives up on that and — with this Schroedinger’s rape — settles fully on Gordo as the real villain. The “tragedy” of The Gift is wrapped up in its final scene, with Simon observing Robyn’s new baby in the maternity ward and becoming distressed over the idea that the baby might not be his, and that Robyn might have been raped. The “horror” here, and the payback from Gordo to Simon, is that Simon’s “property” — his wife — might have been used by another man — and that the “property” that is the child might not even be his property! As the credits roll and the lights come up, we are meant to feel bad for Simon, or at the very least to see that he had gotten his right and just comeuppance for having bullied Gordo all those years ago. Now Simon’s life is ruined, too.
(Perhaps this is payback to Bateman for having been on the other side of such a scenario in the abhorrent The Switch.)
Now, women being raped or otherwise abused onscreen not to explore women’s pain but in order to make men feel something is a trope with a long and disgusting history. But Edgerton has found a new way to be vile about it. Robyn is completely oblivious to the possibility that she might have been raped. She is blissfully ignorant of the chance that the child she just gave birth to might not be her husband’s child. And this is deemed a good thing.
Now, the only truly reasonable way to look at this entire scenario is that of course Gordo didn’t actually touch Robyn and is only messing with Simon’s head. Because there’s almost no way that Robyn could have been raped and impregnated without being aware of it. (I imagine many men do not know what I’m about to reveal here. A brief glimpse at any forum devoted to sex and health suggests that many women aren’t even aware of this.) This is the reality: When a man who isn’t wearing a condom ejaculates inside a woman’s vagina, that semen does not get absorbed by the woman’s body. It comes back out, later. Some tiny sperm might get absorbed, of course, but not its delivery vehicle. If Gordo had raped Robyn with the intent of getting her pregnant, there would be evidence that she would not be able to dismiss (and that’s beside whatever evidence would be left by the penetration itself, either bruising and/or discomfort or whatever lubricant he might have used). There is no way Robyn wouldn’t know. Maybe some women aren’t aware of this fact, but Robyn has been trying to get pregnant with her husband; she knows. So case closed: Robyn wasn’t raped, and Gordo is just messing with Simon.
Except… we have already seen that the film believes that Robyn is confused, uncertain, and perhaps good at lying to herself about absolutely everything. She would have to be if she hadn’t had a clue about what a loathsome person her husband is. (Even sociopaths aren’t charming all the time.) So maybe The Gift thinks it’s possible that Robyn could have been raped and impregnated without realizing that had happened. Maybe the title of the film refers to the baby that Gordo has given Robyn, who has been desperate for a baby? *gag*
This doesn’t help: the number of ways in which The Gift holds women in contempt and disdain only increases with this explanation. (As with so many other hot-button issues The Gift touches on, it gets this one wrong, too. Sure, a woman could potentially be sexually assaulted without necessarily being aware of it. But not like this.)
The Gift does seem to believe that it’s an open question, who the father of Robyn’s baby is. The ending wouldn’t have the punch it is intended to have if there were no doubt. The disaster for Simon is not “Look at this poor sap, so clueless about how women’s bodies work that he doesn’t realize that his wife cannot have been raped and impregnated secretly.” The disaster for Simon is “Oh no, his property has been violated! Or maybe not! He’ll never know for sure.” (Because apparently paternity tests don’t exist in this world.) To the end, Robyn remains ignorant of the Schroedinger’s rape, because her possible rape is totally not about her.
Of course, many men are clueless about women, not just about our bodies but about our minds, too. But there’s every indication that the man who wrote and directed this movie is as clueless as the two male characters onscreen seem to be.