'The Gift' Is a Well-Made Thriller That Turns Toxic

Joel Edgerton's directorial debut is getting rave reviews, but has some serious problems, too.

STX Entertainment

A strange dinner guest lingers a little too long near the beginning of The Gift. He's terrible at casual conversation and seems a little too needy for his hosts, but he's not a bad guy. Just odd. But because that guy is on the poster looking like an axe murderer while holding a somehow malevolent looking gift-wrapped box it's not long before the oddball turns genuinely scary.

The trick of The Gift, however, is in how it turns the tables, and gets you mixed up, kind of rooting for the weirdo, Gordon (Joel Edgerton, also writing and directing) and hating the smarmy successful business douche, Simon (Jason Bateman), we're given in place of a protagonist. The real hero of the movie turns out to be Simon's wife, Robyn (Rebecca Hall), anyway. Along the way we get a thrill out of watching a messy dynamic come together and fall apart. The three seem tailor-made to make each other cringe with embarrassment, confusion, and disgust in equal measures.

This being Edgerton's first time making a feature-length film, that dynamic isn't just interesting, it's impressive that he was able to get it so right. Unfortunately the third act includes a revelation so vile (from a story-telling standpoint) it ruined the whole thing for me, but we'll get to that later. Let's set the stage a little bit.

Simon and Robyn are a very successful couple moving from Chicago to an LA suburb to take things easier after Robyn suffered a miscarriage. While they're out shopping one day, Simon runs into a high school acquaintance whose name he can't remember at first. After a little gabbing the two start to catch up and agree to chat more later. After a very awkward dinner together, the old acquaintance, Gordon, aka Gordo, aka Weirdo, starts to feel like Jim Carrey in The Cable Guy — a psycho who just wants to hang out.

This would-be friend is quickly turned into an enemy as Simon tells him in no uncertain terms that no, they cannot hang out. And that's when the fun starts. Fish die. A dog disappears. And a note arrives admonishing Simon that Gordon had been willing to "let bygones be bygones." But now he's done it. The letter arouses Robyn's suspicions, and the audience gets the first whiff of something rotten in Simon's past. But Robyn's got other things to worry about because she's pregnant again.

This who-is-the-real-bad-guy vibe works well as Robyn tries to figure out who to trust, making the second act the highlight. But then we get to the movie's big revelation, which turns out to be its raison d'etre, and the whole thing turns bitter fast.

Now I have to apologize because I'm going to spoil the ending because it's impossible for me to register my complaint without doing so. With that in mind...

[SPOILERS AHEAD]

It turns out Simon is a pretty terrible bully who basically ruined Gordo's life with a nasty gay molestation rumor when they were in high school. There was a moment when Simon could have made it all right by admitting the rumor was false, but he didn't. Robyn is furious when she finds out, and it only gets worse as it becomes clear Simon is in the process of tanking a work rival with some more vicious lies. When Robyn sends Simon to apologize to Gordo, he beats the guy up instead. All this is to say you eventually start to root for Gordo, that psycho-looking dude on the poster of the movie, and it's kind of fun. But fun is not what this movie has in mind.

Everything comes to a head when Robyn has the baby. Simon gets a phone call from work letting him know he's being fired. Robyn tells him she's leaving him. And when Simon goes home he finds one last "gift" from Gordo: a package with a baby seat, a key, a CD, and a DVD. The key is to their house, showing that he's been able to get inside all along. The CD is a recording of a conversation where Simon was making fun of Gordo. The DVD, though, is the kicker. It shows an earlier scene, where Robyn passes out while home alone during the daytime. But this time Gordo is watching and recording it. The video goes on to imply that Gordo rapes Robyn, which means *gasp* Gordo might be the newborn's dad.

Simon rushes to the hospital where we see the very ballsy Gordo has arrived to congratulate Robyn on her new baby. Simon arrives just in time to chase him off without catching him, and that's when Gordo calls Simon's cell. The two have a brief and understandably vitriolic conversation where Gordo tells Simon, (and I'm summarizing), "Hey maybe I raped her, maybe I didn't. You'll never know and it'll drive you crazy. So now I have my revenge."

This is where the movie lost me. Up to this point Robyn was a smart character with faculty and ability and she was a real player in the story. But this last reveal reduces her to a non-player, and in a way less than a person. Instead she's now just a vessel to carry the baby that proves Gordo won. She's a pawn in a game of dick chess and the female avatar in someone's rape/revenge fantasy.

The twist doesn't just ruin the ending, it ruins the whole movie because when you go back and look you realize the whole thing was a set-up for this one moment. It wasn't a twist that was thrown in to make the third act more interesting, it was the idea around which the entire story was written. That means Joel Edgerton sat down to write a movie around the not-clever-at-all idea that a guy whose life was mostly ruined by a bully should get revenge on that bully by raping that bully's wife. (Or maybe not raping her.)

Note that nothing really happens to the bully. It happens to his wife. She's punished for his actions. To be fair, I don't think Edgerton meant to go so far as to punish the wife for the husband's actions. To be fair, I think he only saw as far as the husband, and how it affected him. The whole thing underlines a huge problem we have in our media — we don't treat female characters like people. It's a problem more people are thinking about these days, so it's surprising that this movie has a RottenTomatoes score of 93 percent! Yes, Edgerton has put together a very solid psychological thriller here, but its entire story hinges on a possible rape that dehumanizes one of its central characters, and leaves me feeling angry that I have to see this story yet again.

I write about movies for Zimbio.com, which means I spend way too much time thinking about the geekiest possible ways to approach the cineplex. I'm also hopelessly addicted to audio books. Follow me: Google
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