Wrapping up 2015: The Gift
It shouldn’t be possible for a good film to become a bad one in one scene. The awful ending of Psycho doesn’t keep it from being an all-time great. But then, the ending of Psycho doesn’t invalidate and wipe out all the good that came before it. It let the momentum of the movie come to a crashing halt of tedious exposition, but that exposition didn’t say “by the way, here’s how everything you liked about the movie is now a lie”. The good parts of Psycho remain good, no matter how it ended. The same cannot be said of The Gift, a film with an ending that meticulously sabotages all the good that comes before with swift and brutal efficiency.
The Gift, starring, written, and directed by Joel Edgerton, is something close to a marvel for its first 90 minutes. It drew me in, surprised me, and engrossed me. It was a candidate to be one of my favorite films of the year. And the the ending happened. Like with Psycho, good movies sometimes have bad endings. The ending of The Gift is not simply bad; it aggressively undoes everything good about the film that came before. I don’t think I’ve seen anything like it.
There is enough skill and quality in this film that merits more than lip service. It tells the story that starts out feeling all too familiar. An affluent yuppie couple- Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall)- have relocated from Chicago to Simon’s hometown in Southern California. Their new home is one of the those glass spaces carved into the canyons. All that view makes them expensive, I suppose. While shopping for furniture, a man approaches Simon, claiming to know him. Simon needs a few beats to remember. It’s his old high school classmate Gordon (Edgerton), better known as Gordo. Simon, feeling plenty awkward, disconnects with that always misguided line when trying to not talk to someone: “let’s catch up later”. Gordo takes him up on it, leaving them a bottle of wine and showing up for dinner.
Gordo is socially awkward, and Edgerton plays this well. No over-the-top affectation. Robyn, an introvert herself, empathizes with him and scolds her husband for mocking him behind his back. He sees a desperate hanger-on. She sees a needy but harmless soul. If this weren’t a thriller, we’d likely see agree with her. Initially we think that Robyn is a cliche, an all too trusting character who lets someone sinister into her life through naivety. Gordo regularly visits the house uninvited. He hesitates to answer when asked if he has a family, or what he does for a living. He hints that something happened between he and Simon years ago. We think we know where this movie is going.
And then, at first, it doesn’t go there. After a few trips down conventional thriller road (hints that Gordo “isn’t all he seems”, and Robyn’s dog going missing for a few days) the film takes a genuinely surprising turn. Robyn, unsettled by her husband’s behavior, investigates his and Gordo’s history. She discovers that there is far more to Gordo than we expected, but not some horror backstory. Real human tragedy. And Simon is, well, an unapologetic asshole, but the type able to hide it from loved ones so long as he has some private punching bags to bully. Gordo was once that punching bag. Other victims of Simon’s emerge, and the plot seems to take on a beautiful sense of poetic justice. It seems like Edgerton has tricked us into watching a thriller and instead gave us a gripping story of Robyn’s empathy and smarts revealing hidden layers in her life. I was stunned, not from plot twists and jump scares, but from genuine surprise at how smart and human and empathetic this story was. When Robyn tearfully confronts Simon late in the film, it’s not out of fear for her life, but out of despair at realizing just what a cruel human being her husband is.
And then, that goddamn ending. To get into how thoroughly The Gift sabotages itself at the end, I need to plunge headlong into spoilers.
I repeat, major spoilers herein
A key revelation in the film is that Simon was a relentless bully in high school who ruined Gordo’s life, spreading rumors that got him pulled from school and beaten to a pulp by his father. Initially, these revelations are part of what make the film so surprising. They justify Robyn’s empathy toward Gordo. The film, to this point, is from Robyn’s perspective. Every new thing she learns about Simon is another nail in the coffin of their marriage. It’s a smart subversion of an old-fashioned thriller setup. Robyn convinces Simon to apologize to Gordo. Instead of apologizing, Simon beats and humiliates him, then lies to Robyn. Gordo leaves a note saying he won’t bother them anymore. Time passes. Robyn becomes pregnant. Simon sabotages a co-workers chance at a promotion so he can get the gig, is discovered, and is fired. Robyn goes into labor. Simon gets a tape from Gordo.
The tape, and a subsequent conversation Simon has with Gordo, more than suggest that Gordo drugged and raped Robyn earlier in the film (a scene where we see her collapse in her room; we are lead at the time to believe that she overdosed on pills, but Gordo’s tape suggests he drugged her). It is also implied that Gordo might have impregnated Robyn. All of this plays out as Gordo taunts Simon over the phone as Simon breaks down into tears. The movie ends. Where to begin.
This ending is cheap and exploitative “shock” material in a film that, thus far, has succeeded in presenting a sense of empathy and humanity. Worse yet is how this ending treats Robyn. Up until the end, she is the film’s protagonist and point of view. At the end, she isn’t even a character. She has no idea what has happened. She doesn’t speak or have a chance to listen or present a point of view. Her agency isn’t just gone, it’s disregarded as if it never mattered. The possibility of her rape is strictly to provide pain for Simon. It’s bad enough that the film so needlessly resorts to using rape strictly for shock value, having already told a complete and satisfying story. That it kicks Robyn to the curb, using her victimization to heighten her husband’s pain, is worse. Finally, the ending renders everything that made the film so good- its focus on and justification of Robyn’s empathy- completely inert. It was all a ruse to get us to this bullshit. Gordo was a predator all along. Robyn was being foolishly naive. The most cynical and stupid tropes of thrillers turn out to be what this movie believes.
The Gift spends 90 minutes subverting our expectations of its genre, turning into a terrific story, and then heedlessly plunges into the very worst aspects of that genre in its final moments. This is a well-acted, technically proficient film. But its story is ultimately cruel, bitter, cynical, stupid, schlocky, and gross. If you’ve ever wondered if one scene can turn a good film into a bad one, The Gift is a case study.