It’s about 18 minutes into The Gift and I am screaming “Oh shit,” so loudly that the entire theater is laughing and the woman next to me tries to put her hand on my knee to comfort me. It’s the second time this has happened; it’s not the last. But while the jump scares in this Jason Bateman vehicle are plentiful, it’s the movie’s message that is more terrifying than any crazed stalker could be.
On the surface, The Gift is a classic stalker movie. A couple moves into a house; a couple runs into a mysterious old acquaintance; said old acquaintance, of course, turns out to be a psychotic obsessive bent on revenge. Yet beneath that—beneath the violence, the screams, and the broken windows—the movie is a heartbreaking story of the effects that bullying can have on both the victim and the perpetrator. It’s a film as much about pain’s ability to linger, how hurt doesn’t dissipate when childhood is over but festers, turning into something both primitive and human.
As the movie hurtles from one twist to another (none spoiled here upon threat of death by editors) it stops being a “whodunit” and becomes sort of a naked keening, a jumble of raw nerve endings on display, each character both inflicting and absorbing more and more pain.
The Gift’s premise is simple: A married couple named Simon and Robyn (played by Bateman and Rebecca Hall) move back to a small town in California. While shopping for furniture for their new house, they run into Gordon (played by Joel Edgerton, who also wrote and directed the film), someone Simon knew in school. While Simon’s reluctant to start a friendship with Gordon—whom he refers to as “Gordo the Weirdo”—Robyn’s intrigued about Simon’s past.
Gordo suddenly becomes a constant presence in their lives, visiting the couple’s new house when Simon’s not home, and dropping off expensive gifts that neither Simon or Robyn expect or want. But when they try to cut off communication with Gordon—who really is a weirdo—they begin to suffer for it, encountering things that would make anyone not in a movie thriller burn down their own house, collect the insurance money, and flee to another country, never to be heard from again.
But here’s the interesting thing that’s truly unsettling about The Gift: unlike classics like Nightmare on Elm Street or even Fatal Attraction, there’s no clear villain here. There is also no hero. Indeed, you never really root for any of the characters. No one is particularly likable, neither are they truly understandable; depending on personal experiences viewers could be persuaded to either team. There are no winners in The Gift, no one who get their just desserts. That’s what makes the movie so fucked up.
While critics have praised the movie’s tight pacing and heart-stopping moments (there are plenty, but I urge you to see it even if you’re not into being scared out of your wits), the horror mechanics feel like they’re only a vehicle for the pain. When Gordon realizes that no one’s forgotten that he was Gordo the Weirdo even after 20 years, you can’t help but feel the hurt of that cruelty, even though he’s clearly set up as the villain.
The Gift is a reminder of how indelible the marks of childhood are, how incredibly painful growing up in a hostile world is, and what it’s like to try to make sense of one’s life after a horrible trauma that really can’t be blamed on anything but shitty kids being shitty kids.
Anyone who’s been bullied (myself included) will understand that this film isn’t just a revenge fantasy but also a cautionary tale about not letting go of past hurts. At one point, as Gordon looks at a dry-erase board that has his childhood nickname scrawled on it, his eyes remind the audience that for some people things never change—even as adults, we haven’t stopped victimizing each other, we’ve just gotten better at being more subtle. And that all leads to a mishmash of an experience.
While there are some sections of the film that feel way too pat (strange discoveries! dark stairways! A cameo by David Denman who is basically in everything these days!), they’re ultimately dismissed in favor of the larger picture.
The Gift leaves audiences silent at the end—not because of fear, but because of contemplation; and possibly the realization that we can see ourselves in each one of the characters, both the victimized and the victimizer. While it’s unlikely that any of the people we’ve hurt in the past will act in the way that Gordon does, it’s an uncomfortable reminder of what drives people over the edge, leaving those who came to see the movie with the lasting discomfort of regret, along with the quickly dissipating knot of fear in their stomachs.
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Image via STX Entertainment