Whenever a first-time writer director creates a finely-crafted and satisfying psychological thriller, as Joel Edgerton has done with The Gift, there is cause to celebrate. Edgerton’s movie, however, has an ending that is either troubling or brilliant – or perhaps both; an ending that makes us reconsider the very nature of how we view and subsequently analyse a movie. I give you full warning: I am going to discuss that ending in some detail. If you do not wish to have the climax revealed, you can still read a couple paragraphs, but you will not want to read the end. Don’t worry – I’ll give an allcaps spoiler alert warning when you reach dangerous territory.
Edgerton has had a strong career as an actor, especially over the past five years, and he contributed to the screenplay of David Michod’s fine The Rover last year. In The Gift, he directs for the first time, as well as writing and playing one of the three principal roles. The story begins in familiar territory, with a handsome youngish couple – Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) – settling into a new house. Shortly thereafter, Simon runs into an old high school acquaintance, Gordo, the role Edgerton handles. Gordo is a bit of an odd duck, apparently well-meaning but socially awkward. When he begins dropping by the new house and leaving gifts whenever Simon is away, we begin to sense he might have a thing for Robyn, and we are likely to think we have seen this movie before. Gordo will stalk. Gordo will terrorise. Gordo will force a confrontation. There will be blood.
It is to Edgerton’s credit that he does not totally abandon that standard trope, but he changes it enough so that it feels much fresher than we might expect. Things are not as they appear on several levels. At various points, each of the main players’ reliability will be brought into question. Our rooting interests will shift. There are precious few contrivances, and no one demonstrates super powers of espionage or deception or small arms expertise. In fact, there are only two missteps that I see in the way Edgerton lays out his film, and one of them is innocuous. The beginning of the downfall for one of the characters has no relationship to the core interaction of the trio. It was going to happen regardless. Therefore, it does lend a bit of coincidence to the narrative. The other mistake, to me, is a rather poor choice of closing credit music. But maybe that’s just me.
When weighted against all that is good in the movie, these are not major problems. Edgerton does a marvelous job using the glass house in which Simon and Robyn live as a constant metaphor for the unreliability of transparency. He structures his screenplay in a seamless manner. Robyn’s pregnancy logically leads to a baby shower attended by, among others, Simon’s sister, and Simon’s sister is the one character perfectly positioned to supply a crucial piece of exposition. In a genre often plagued by contrivance, that type of attention to narrative craft is beautiful to behold.
And then there is the ending.
Gordo wants justifiable revenge against Simon for something that happened when they were in high school. Simon has kept the incident in question a secret from Robyn, who has been somewhat sympathetic to Gordo. In this sense, Robyn has been turned into a surrogate for the audience. We discover the various truths about the back story as she does. We question both men at various points, again, as she does. Robyn becomes our eyes.
At one point in the middle, Robyn, who has had her own share of mental health and prescription drug issues after losing a pregnancy a year earlier, passes out while alone in her house. At this point, she is not pregnant. We do not see her regain her senses. We see her waking up the following day with Simon grilling her about possible drug use. At the climax of the movie, we will go back to that moment and watch, this time through Simon’s eyes, a tape that Gordo has sent him. Gordo was there when Robyn passed out. He likely drugged her, then put her to bed. He taunts Simon with the possibility that he raped Robyn that night. On one level, this is perfect revenge because the issue of maliciously withholding the truth is at the heart of the past problem between the two men. Gordo walks away at the end, leaving Simon distraught, wondering if he is the father of his newborn child.
If you focus on the story between the two men, this is an almost perfect ending. (There’s still that closing credit music, though.) But what about our surrogate, Robyn? She is oblivious to all this, and perhaps in this case ignorance is bliss. But there is the very real possibility that she has been drugged and raped, and has given birth to a child as a result of that rape. Robyn is an innocent character. Maybe not perfect, but far more kind and mature than the two men. At the end, she is reduced to a prize. Though Simon does not get the chance to explain his feelings, it is not hard to see his pain deriving from his symbolic loss of ownership of his wife and their supposed progeny. Does he really care what Robyn may have been subjected to? Gordo, even if he did not rape Robyn, at the very least has used her maliciously in an attempt to get revenge.
The movie ends at this point, so we have no way to analyse the way the text handles this issue. I suspect, the intention at the end is for an audience to think that Simon, who is ultimately revealed to be quite the bastard, got what he deserved. I also suspect that Robyn is largely an afterthought at that point.
OK, it’s not news that a Hollywood movie would use a female as a sexual pawn in the battle between two disturbed men. What complicates the matter in this instance is the fact that we have been identifying with Robyn for most of the movie. For audience members with a Y chromosome, this either puts us in the unfamiliar position of being an afterthought ourselves, or it simply confirms that in Hollywood-style movies, female life is sold cheap. Either a brilliant sleight of hand or a troubling reminder of what we take for granted. It all depends on how you choose to view it. And I suppose that, in and of itself, is another reason to celebrate Edgerton.
Now if he’d just pick some better music for the credits…