First Thoughts: The Gift

I saw The Gift on Thursday night and I really contemplated very hard if this was what I wanted to be my first post, after all I’m not a huge fan of just speaking up to criticize films, but it’s Saturday night and it’s still bothering me so here I am. There’s nothing that irks me more as a film fan than wasted potential, and I think that’s why I feel so uneasy still about this film, and unwilling to commit to what its putting forth, which is two thirds of a great film and one third of an…..ending, and a problematic one at that. First, I’ll start by setting up how the film so greatly subverts audience expectations and genre norms before getting to the bad taste it left in my mouth that I feel like I need to put out there. Of course, given the film isn’t out on DVD and a shot by shot analysis isn’t really possible, this is going to be more of a deconstruction of its thematic content. I’d like to preface this half rant half analysis by saying that I am all for being shocked and a film subverting my expectations and surprising me; this is all awesome when it’s done right, actually. But, I feel unsettled, so I at least want to think through it on here even though this may not be a final, solidified opinion of mine. BE WARNED, SPOILERS AHEAD.

I think the most interesting things about The Gift for me were its subversions of genre norm, its attention to character development, and its thematic exploration of roles and positions of power (as well as one other nonsequitor I might mention in a later post as this is way too long already). The film essentially sets up and subverts the norms of what you’d expect from a film in the ‘stalker’ genre, while also setting up and shifting the relations of power between the characters at the same time. For the first third or so of the film seems to play by the rules of what the audience would expect from a stalker film; you have a couple (Simon and Robyn) trying to move forward from a sketchy past and they happen to run into a weirdo (Gordo) who’s obsession turns predatory when he is rebuked. The power dynamics in this part are what you’d expect: Simon claims that Robyn is the “boss of the relationship” but it’s pretty clear that the decisions being made are, for the most part, his (and there’s an incredibly awkward exchange with his work associates). Robyn’s relationship with Gordo only furthers her character’s lack of power, the film seems to challenge whether she is being compassionate towards Gordo or just being the doormat that Simon suggests she is. Meanwhile, the couple, specifically Robyn, is the target of Gordo’s odd obsessive behavior and continual gifts. We could probably specify that this portion of the film pretty strongly adheres to Simon’s black and white notions of winners, losers, cool kids and weirdos.

Now, the second portion of this film is all about introducing complexity to this vision, as the film begins to shift in multiple ways. The couple has been terrorized, as you would expect in your run of the mill stalker film until they get a note in which Gordo says he was actually willing to let bygones be bygones, and Robyn begins to investigate what exactly that means. In this portion, the audience learns that Simon, the protector and protagonist thus far, was actually the predatory character whose childish bullying and fabrications set Gordo’s life on what Simon would call the ‘loser’ type path it has gone down. A couple notes on what this accomplishes (beyond the obvious narrative twist): first, this portion allows the emergence of Robyn as an assertive and proactive character despite her being the terrorized doormat of the first potion. She puts asides the pills and actively demystifies her relationship with Simon, but she doesn’t have to lose her moral compass to do so. If we’re labeling this portrayal of a female as regressive or progressive, I’d suggest Robyn has, at this point, evolved to represent a progressive, strong female character. Secondly, what this portion of the film does is to also make the audience feel complicit in Simon’s vision of the world; due to previous expectations given the genre and the lack of information disclosed, Gordo did seem like an obsessive weirdo, but we have to feel a bit guilty to have believed that after learning about what actually went on in his past. In terms of power dynamics in the film at this point, we now have Robyn who is staking an actual claim to her side of the relationship with Simon while being able to remain sympathetic, but not a pushover, towards Gordo. The predatory character is actually Simon, and not Gordo; note that we have an explicit scene where we see Simon reassert his views on the world and beat Gordo but now are supposed to side with Gordo. If the first portion of the film reflected Simon’s view of the world, I’d loosely say that the second portion reaffirms Robyn’s positions and beliefs moreso (and is reflected in the fact that she is the major player in this portion).

And then comes along the final part, after playing with the norms of power relationships and revealing its female character to be strong and it…takes a nosedive. Robyn gives birth to her child and seems to suggest she doesn’t want to continue on with Simon; I hope in this case I am not interpreting what she said the wrong way (and forgive me if I am). Simon also gets a call that he’s actually been fired from his dream promotion due to his unethical work practices to cement the comeuppance that the bully deserves before going home to find the titular gift. The gift is a stroller that contains a key, an audio recording of Simon mocking Gordo (Simon suggests, in a rude manner, that Gordo wants to have sex with Robyn) and then a DVD which shows Gordo, in a monkey mask, taking a passed out Robyn over to the bed and touching her in such ways that implies he violated her. Cut to a minute or so later, Gordo explains he won’t be telling Simon whether or not he actually fathered Robyn’s child, because that will be a horrible punishment for Simon. Simon collapses, defeated. End. I took a moment after this happened and thought about it narratively; there’s this gaping plot hole about the fact that if Simon really wanted to know who’s child it was, I mean honestly, couldn’t he just go get a blood test? Wouldn’t that invalidate Gordon’s torturous scheme? But, of course, we need to probe behind the narrative to see why I still think this ending is extremely problematic.

I’m going to say that if the first portion of the film aligned with Simon, and the second with Robyn, the third part here aligns with Gordo and allows his act of vengeance to come to fruition. What does this do to the power dynamics explored? Let’s start with the most minor one the film seems the least interested to explore: Robyn seems to be done with Simon. It gets one line, and then her thread of the story disappears so that Simon and Gordo’s relationship can be put to the foreground. In this realm, Simon is completely emasculated and Gordo walks away the winner, if you’d call it that of the struggle. At the same point, by pushing this relationship to the foreground in the way it does, the film introduces a huge problem. Robyn is no longer primarily the assertive character she evolved into in the second half, but her primary role has now devolved into being a sexual object used in the two men’s game of revenge. To make matters completely worse, the fact that a female character may or may not have been violated is a) of no concern to her because baby+out of loop=happy and b) played out entirely through the emotions of a male character; the act of rape is used in this situation just to destroy the psyche of the male character. So an uncertain rape scenario is introduced, keeping the helpless female character entirely out of the loop and blissfully unaware, to make the male character pay for his sins of the past: again, the male character pays because the female was violated. Immediately after seeing the film this “shocking twist” just felt a bit sloppy and regressive to all of the complexities of the first two parts to me, and at this point I’m just not sure I’ve gotten over it yet. The thematic meaning I drew from this that somewhat explains this move is that by acting a monster, Simon’s character created a monster essentially; but does that really justify the events that unfold in the last half? And isn’t there a way that the male character could pay, if that’s all the film is aiming for, on his own without that specific action?

I’m still unsure, and at this point I cannot commit to The Gift because of this ending that just feels so narratively sloppy and thematically unwieldy despite all that happened before it. I’m going to leave it open to the possibility that someone will alleviate me of feeling that the third portion of this film is problematic, and doesn’t totally destroy the advancements of power relations and worldviews explored in the first two parts, but I felt like I at least had to deconstruct the film a little and put that out there. I’m a firm believer that policing for strict political correctness can inhibit art, and we shouldn’t be closed to shock art and all it can accomplish, but I don’t know, I still feel unsettled.

—Image Courtesy of USAToday//Blumhouse Productions—

 

 

 

 

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