I normally don’t do movie reviews on this blog. And I tried to write something really narrative or literary about this movie, The Gift (directed and written by Joel Edgerton, starring Joel Edgerton, Jason Bateman & Rebecca Hall) but it’s so good that it deserves a closer examination. If you haven’t watched the trailer, check it out below.
Just from the trailer, it looks like a schlocky thriller that spent the bulk of the budget on its A-list cast. A new couple with a new house, and the friendly neighbourhood act from an old friend that becomes increasingly sinister. That is the message of it’s marketing and if the movie met said expectation would get an “adequate” rating from most movie critics and be forgotten immediately afterward. But it’s not, it’s so good that Joel Edgerton should be considered for armfuls of best directing awards. Because the idea that it is just a mere thriller is brilliantly subverted within the movie through an exploration of the fragility of the character’s lives by how they perceive it.
P.S. [Spoiler Alert] This analysis assumes you would have watched the movie. It’s worth it. So please watch it.
Looking through a Window
Windows are used frequently in the Gift as a metaphor for character’s perception and connection to each other and their desires. Each character has a desire which is brought forth based on how they see others and use windows.
Simon Callyn (Jason Bateman) wants what every successful middle/upper-class man wants: a successful middle/upper-class life. A life that comes with a nice house, a nice car, a loving wife and friends. One of the first acts in his relationship with his wife Robyn Callyn (Rebecca Hall) is to block her view from the window to blow a breath-heart on the window.
Robyn’s desire is similar to her husband’s for a sense of calm and security in their suburban life, but it’s also conjoined to a need to have an unfiltered understanding of who her husband is. How she wipes the steam from the shower glass, is her attempt to find the truth. Later in the post-breakup with Gordon, when Robyn wipes the shower again it’s classic stalker shock of Gordie watching her. A dream yes, but an indication of how Robyn’s perception (as well as our own attitude of Gordon) should be called into question.
However, it’s Gordon who has the answer and doesn’t need a filter. By gifting Robyn with a house welcome package, including window cleaner, it’s an indication that he has the answer. His use of windows is also a show of his control of perception over Robyn. With a house that is so fully windows that it’s almost a glass house, Gordon always makes sure that he is in full view of Robyn when paying a civil visit. After the breakup, he is only seen in the background while watching Robyn.
Windows are also used as a protection or a shield from the truth, as the smashing of the Callyn’s windows by Simon’s ex-colleague is a metaphor for the breaking of Simon’s safety as his crime is exposed by someone he wronged to his friends, colleagues and family.
This exposure ruins his life separates Simon from his desire for a happy life and is marked by the closing of the curtain across the window between Simon and Robyn. We are given a final shot of Gordon in the background, and seeing him face-up through the window do we finally understand how we see Simon and how we see him, an ultimately flawed but sympathetic character whom we are still unsure of. Windows are in a way filters, ones which we see ourselves looking at others without interacting with them but allow others to be seen back.
The Fragility of Class
While the characters fetishize looking through mirrors, it’s in the perception of their social classes that they dwell in. Every character seems to live for or at least aware of the American dream. A 9-5 profession with 2-week vacation, husband, wife, kid along the way, dinner parties with friends and neighbours. However, it’s not the trappings of the life that the characters want but the sense of stability security that the life is supposed to bring and is often a struggle to maintain.
It’s clear that Simon and Robyn are quite well-off, literally the poster family of what society tells us we should aspire to. However, their life is continuously wrought with insecurity. Robyn’s first introduction with her neighbours who will be check marked as the role of friendly neighbours is marred with her fear for their assumedly abandoned baby in their car. It’s these moments of vulnerability that persists throughout the movie. Even the comfort of being friends with the neighbourhood wife is neither shown or developed rather, only as a means to contrast Robyn’s desire for children and her troubled relationship with her husband.
The topics of discussion during their many dinner parties is usually around Simon’s job (the income source to maintain their lifestyle) as well as Gordon (how he is an unwelcome obtrusion in the Callyn’s social circle. Maintaining their surroundings with their “friends” and “lifestyle” is necessary for even Gordon as he uses his employer’s house as a display of success, something that is a surprise to Simon and Robyn given that he doesn’t work during the day and his awkward. social manner.
Even without Gordon, the suburban lifestyle and the advertised security that comes from it is built on others and must be protected at all times. For example when Danny throws the first rock, disrupting Simon’s promotion party, calling the cops becomes the immediate reaction.
The inevitable breaking of the window I’ve mentioned earlier utterly shatters any sense of ease for those inside and something that Simon can only wreak revenge on. It could also be a metaphor of Occupy Wall Street Rage against the rich. Danny, the vandal, looks like a middle management schlub compared to Simon’s charismatic appeal. One that also shows their moral compasses and their positions in society.
Finally during the climax with the birth instead of being an island of happiness which most movies treat it as, it’s fraught with tension and the destruction of any remnant of comfort and protection that Simon and Robyn felt with the literal disintegration of the pillars of their suburban life. With Simon being fired for his unethical actions and Robyn’s desire for a separation. All it took were words and ideas.
However, Gordon breaking into the Callyn’s household is the final nail in their sense of security. In a final confirmation of Simon’s worst fears, Gordon had been breaking into his home, and stalking his wife. Gordon does not commit any acts of violence, nor does he steal anything of intrinsic value and even his act of rape is questionable. Yet he has exposed Simons failure to provide a sense of security for his wife and himself (ironic for a guy who sells Security) and a show of how flimsy Simon’s life really was.
Subverting the Thriller
The Gift is genius because of its depth in playing with the expectations and insecurities of its characters but its audience as well. As I mentioned before the trailer sets it up as thriller schlock: a couple becomes terrorized by a stalker, who has ties with the past, the stalker is defeated, and the couple have their Happily Ever After. It has depth but more importantly it holds our expectations and toys with us.
The first time our expectations are subverted is with the introduction of Gordon and his peculiar kindness. There is nothing creepy or socially wrong to be as kind as Gordon is. His actions are practically Ned Flanders in kindness, but it is peculiar, for which Simon overreacts to terminate, one which we can understand, because “going to be the villain” is still ringing when we look at Gordon. A lot of throwaway clues set this expectation us, including Gordie’s claim that he was once in the military, meaning he has skills he can use to scare or attack Simon and Robyn.
Gordon’s continued visits to Robyn when Simon isn’t there and their interaction also leads us to believe that there is chemistry between the two, a conflicting love triangle that we think will play out but are waiting to see how. Simon himself points this out with his crude pantomiming of what he thinks are Gordon’s intentions of Gordon trying to start a relationship with Robyn. It’s an idea that Gordie takes to full realism, not the reality but the idea to haunt Simon with.
Gordon’s continued encroachment into Simon and Robyn’s life looks set to become the “thriller” second act of the movie. Which is reinforced by Gordon’s apparent motivation of revenge for being cast off and Robyn’s apparent paranoia that she is being stalked (Gordon?) within her mostly empty house. This is further reinforced with their dog disappearance and the cops getting involved. This leads to a standard jump scare with her dog’s return. It should be a happy moment, the dog had wandered off and now came back home, yet we can still feel Robyn’s palpable fear and her need to know what is happening to her life.
In fact the only truly violent moments are Simon’s acts of aggression, including beating up Gordon in a underground parking lot. It’s strange because it’s one of the few acts of violence in the film. In fact Gordon himself commits no acts of violence against Simon or Robyn, despite the movie setting up the thought that he would.
The final breaking of our understanding of the thriller cliche is the final exchange between Robyn and Simon.
“I don’t want to go back to the house” says Robyn an indication perhaps that Robyn is no longer feeling safe in the house.
“I don’t want to back to the house with you” She’s clear the problem is no longer the house it’s with Jason.
Gordon’s not the villain despite stalking and maybe/not raping Robyn, it’s Simon the one who should be the protagonist of the story but the antagonist.
As Gordon explains “Ideas are Poison”, a fitting end to a beautiful subversion of all of our expectations. Joel Edgerton called his movie “The Gift,” maybe to show off his mad gift wrapping skills. A more accurate title would be The idea. Because that is what the film is about.