Tuesday, January 12, 2016
Cult-Movie Review: The Gift (2015)
[Beware of Spoilers! They abound.]
In my book Horror Films of the 1990s, I wrote in much detail about the great cinematic boogeyman of that decade: The Interloper.
I defined an Interloper as an “invader” a person who “deliberately interferes with the affairs of another, or who trespasses into a place, situation or activity without permission or invite.”
The setting of that invasion might be the workplace (The Temp , The Fan ), the home (The Guardian , Pacific Heights , The Hand That Rocks the Cradle , Single White Female ) or even a family vacation (The River Wild ).
I also attempted to define the parameters or conventions of this notable sub-genre, which I feel replaced the masked slashers of the 1980s, at least for a time in the first half of the decade.
First, as I noted, “we’re all accountable,” meaning that in an Interloper movie, the film’s protagonist commits some act that sparks the interest or activity of the invader in the first place.
For instance, a hero might break the law (like Nick Nolte's character does in Cape Fear ), invade a roommate’s personal space (as Bridget Fonda does to Jennifer Jason Leigh in Single White Female), or “fudge the numbers” to achieve a certain end (as Melanie Griffith and Matthew Modine do in Pacific Heights).
Sometimes the “accountability” runs much, much deeper. Tom Skerritt’s character has sex with his daughter’s under-age friend, Ivy (Drew Barrymore) in Poison Ivy (1992), even though he realizes the behavior is wrong.
So it’s fair to state that the Interloper film is all about characters realizing that bouts of immorality carry a heavy price. And yes, I believe this is an evolution of the slasher's "vice precedes slice and dice" paradigm. In those films, behaviors such as pre-marital sex or smoking weed earn death by machete.
In the Interloper films, immoral behavior invites in the Interloper.
Convention #2 of the Interloper film I termed “What’s Your Childhood Trauma,” and it involves the fact that Interlopers are often psychologically damaged, having undergone severe psychological or mental trauma during their childhood.
Hedy in Single White Female once had a twin who drowned, for instance. Judith (Jamie Lee Curtis), the psychotic mother of Mother’s Boys (1994), saw her father commit suicide. The Interlopers in these films are generally sick people, at least in terms of emotion and personal experience. Something about their childhood trauma triggers their behavior in the movie’s present (and unfolding narrative).
I call Convention 3 “Big Problems Start Small” and it reflects the idea that an Interloper’s attacks begin small. A pet disappears or is killed (Cape Fear, Man’s Best Friend, The River Wild), a car gets scratched (The Crush [1993), Fear  and so forth. The Interloper’s hand in such behavior is strongly suspected, but difficult to verify, especially if authorities are involved. Police aren't often able to assist the victims meaningfully because the first infraction is small, or not considered dangerous enough to merit continued concern.
The fourth and final convention of the Interloper Horror Film I titled “Your Life is Up For Grabs.”
What it means is that the Interloper gets inside the protagonist’s life, and causes the hero to lose a job, lose his or her family, or make other terrible sacrifices. In other words, the Interloper’s invasion affects someone on a deep, personal level. What was once stable is now unstable.
The Interloper films and their structure became much less popular after the 1990s, though the form has been resurrected in films such as Orphan (2009), of late.
Joel Edgerton’s 2015 thriller, The Gift (2015) re-uses the template too, but also re-defines it in a meaningful and trail-blazing way.
In other words, one might meaningfully state that The Gift is to the Interloper films of the 1990s what Scream (1996) was to the slasher films of the 1970s and 1980s; a careful re-imagination and evolution of a tried and true format.
Like many Interloper films, The Gift is riveting because it concerns people who cross the line of social propriety, and the anxiety that goes alongside that over-stepping. We grow uncomfortable not just to see lines of personal comfort crossed, but because we aren't certain how the protagonists will react to such an intrusion. Awkwardness becomes an opportunity for a confrontation.
But to its credit, The Gift also features a surprise about mid-way through that stands convention on end, and grants the film a feeling not only of freshness but of down-right shivery innovation.
The film is tense, absorbing, and never less than riveting, but The Gift’s greatest quality involves the manner in which it both adopts and undercuts the Interloper formula. It's clearly the 21st century variation, or next step, of this beloved type of thriller.
I’ll consider the movie in terms of the four conventions I spelled out above, in the body of the review.
“Look at what he’s done to us. This is his fault.”
Married couple Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) Callum return home to California after living in Chicago, and undergoing a tragedy involving her pregnancy. They buy a modern new home, and set about to decorate it, while Simon takes a new job in a security firm.
One day while out shopping, Simon and Robyn run into an old school friend of Simon's -- Gordon “Gordo” Moseley (Joel Edgerton) -- who welcomes them back.
Almost immediately, however, Gordon oversteps the bounds of propriety. He shows up unannounced on the Callum doorstep with gifts such as koi for their fish pond, and bottles of wine.
One day, he shows up while Robyn is home alone, and gets a tour of the house. He stays for dinner, to Simon’s chagrin.
After Simon and Robyn are invited to a dinner party at Gordo’s house, Simon decides to nip things in the bud. He tells Gordo to stay away, and that he doesn’t want to be friends with him. Gordo, who claims to be going through a difficult divorce, is clearly hurt by this behavior, as well as the memory of Simon’s nickname for him in school: “Gordo the Weirdo.”
After Simon brushes off Gordo, the Callum’s dog, Mr. Bojangles, disappears, and the koi show up dead in the pond. Simon and Robyn call the police, and learn that Gordo didn’t even invite them to his house for that dinner party; that the home belonged to his employer. Everything he told them was a lie.
Robyn, who has a history of depression, grows increasingly fearful of being home alone; wondering if Gordo will re-appear, and so Simon decides to take matters into his own hands.
“The bad things…they can be a gift.”
Two versions of reality work on parallel tracks in The Gift.
We assume, for example, that we are witnessing the story of a nice married couple that faces an invasion (Unlawful Entry -style) of their lives by an Interloper, Gordo.
And then there’s the other story; the one that becomes apparent in the film’s third act. All the characters -- Simon, Robyn and Gordo -- are the same, but we suddenly get new light on them, and their behavior.
We suddenly start to see one evidence that one character is much more disturbed than we believed, and that another -- instead of being dangerous -- is merely a lost soul.
But significantly, The Gift plays with audience assumptions and beliefs within the framework or structure of the Interloper films of the 1990s.
For example, let’s take Convention 2, first: “What Your Childhood Trauma?”
In the film, it comes out that Simon and a friend, in high school lied about Gordo being molested by an older man. They claimed to have saved him during this incident. The only problem is that Gordo’s father, enraged by the knowledge that his son was involved in the incident, attempted to murder him.
You read that right: Simon’s “prank” nearly caused Gordo’s father to kill him. There’s some trauma for you, right?
In terms of Convention 1, “we’re all accountable,” well…see the above paragraph. Simon, who was famous in school for the phrase “Simon Says” could say things and make them happen. He could get people to do things that he wanted. And he was a bully. In high school, he decided to bully Gordo, and in the process, ruined his life. Now, he doesn’t even remember Gordo when he meets him again. He destroyed his life and doesn’t even recognize his face. That’s how unimportant Gordo is to Simon, in the scheme of things.
The key idea, however, is that the Interloper doesn’t just pick a random target; there’s a reason for the selection. The victim is not of clear conscience, for instance, or even a good person. The Interloper therefore makes them accountable for their ethical lapses.
Convention 3, about "big things starting small," is also revived in The Gift.
It appears, at least for a time, that Gordo has abducted the Callum family dog, Mr. Bojangles, and killed a fish pond worth of koi. This is the warning, of course, in such types of films, that the danger he poses is serious. He is starting out with something relatively small (action against a pet) and could graduate to rape, torture, and murder.
Finally, of course -- and in keeping with Convention #4 -- Simon finds his life up for grabs. He sees Robyn get pregnant and deliver his child, a little boy, in the hospital. But when he returns home, he finds a gift on his porch, left by Gordo.
That gift involves a home-video surreptitiously taken inside Simon and Robyn’s house, on the day that she apparently blacked out for a time; a day when, perhaps, the Callums could have conceived their baby…
With this final act of invasion, Gordo has secured his presence and permanent influence on Simon’s life. He has evened the score. Simon destroyed his relationship with his father, and now Gordo has destroyed -- before it even started -- Simon’s relationship with his newborn son.
It’s unique in these type of films for the Interloper to “win,” but that’s not the main aspect of innovation in the formula in The Gift.
Rather, the great innovation involves the discovery that Gordo is not only the Interloper, but also, simultaneously, the victim. And that, furthermore, there is another victim named Danny McDonald to contend with as well.
It turns out that our protagonist doesn’t simply possess feet of clay (like Nolte in Cape Fear, for example), but has made cruelty a habit in his life.
In other words, the Interloper here may, actually, be justified in some of his behaviors.
After all, Gordo never actually kills Mr. Bojangles. And there’s no proof that he ever assaulted an unconscious Robyn, either.
All he’s done for certain is taken away Simon’s sense of certainty that he is superior; that he is right. Simon can no longer “say” something and make it so. He must now live with the possibility that his life has been played with, much in the way he played with Gordo’s, or Danny’s.
Simon’s philosophy is stated in the film, actually. “This world’s about fucking winners and losers. We’re all in the same shitty playground.”
The victimized Gordo is able to use that philosophy to take back his life. Simon has always been able to ignore his cruel and unethical behavior -- to get off scot-free for it -- by stating that people should just “look forward and be strong.” He claims that “time heals a lot of things.”
Well, he gets to test that theory after Gordo insinuates himself into the most sensitive aspects of his own life. Why can’t Simon just let it go and look forward? Why can’t he let time heal the wounds?
Certainly, that’s what he expected Gordo to do.
Gordo’s philosophy is quite different, and it carries the day. “You’re done with the past,” he says to Simon, "but the past is not done with you.”
The beauty in The Gift arises from the idea not that Gordo wants revenge, or hurts anyone innocent (like Robyn, or Mr. Bojangles), but that he is able to make Simon feel vulnerable…the way he felt for so very long.
So often in the Interloper films, the central conceit is that a good person who had clay feet must take back his life from an aggressive Interloper. He must conquer the threat to his dominance.
The Gift flips the script.
Here the Interloper takes back his life by making the protagonist see how much he’s hurt him. It’s a great turnabout, and Edgerton treats his material with respect and restraint. There are no Glenn-Close-in-the-bath-tub-with-butcher-knife moments in the film, only a slow build-up of suspense and tension, with a perfect release at the end.
In short, it’s been a long time since I saw a new Interloper film with so much life in it. The Gift not only re-establishes the formula with verve, but uses it as a taking-off point for a new direction.
This film is not about the monsters who might invade the home and hearth, but those who live there already.