(FAIR WARNING: Major film spoilers ahead.)
Late again to the party, but I’m not a film reviewer, so the timing of this shouldn’t matter. I’ve no deadlines, no expectations, no commitments here. The site that I’d submitted the occasional review to has since shut down due to a lack of interest from the primaries involved. It doesn’t matter to me right now because again, I’m not a reviewer. I just like pop culture a lot, and I happen to really like writing about it.
Anyway, the meticulously paced thriller, The Gift — courtesy of triple threat Joel Edgerton (who wrote, directed, and starred in it) — has been lingering around, muddling and meddling in my psyche since I saw it weeks ago, and I’ve been contemplating the reasons why I enjoyed it, but not without feeling a little empty and cold as I’ve thought about it.
While I despise certain trend terms that have been heavily publicized and politicized, every so often, I do get them. The term today is “privilege” as in “check your privilege.” I am aware that the reason why “privilege” — even “white privilege” — makes me chilly all over is that it’s apt, especially for me — I’m a white, middle-class, middle-aged woman who has never really had to struggle. I’d always had a choice in the matter whenever things went sour, for the “privileged” around me acted as a gated community of neighborly protectors and advisers, always there for me just in case.
So yes, I am more than a little aware as to why the term “privilege” is used. I don’t think it’s ever more apparent in popular culture than in stalker-thrillers, where the premise isn’t merely about psychotics and their victims — flat-out love/hate obsession — it’s also, arguably, about haves and have-nots — the desire for, or rage against, that sense of “privilege.” Movies like Single White Female, Enduring Love, Fear, One Hour Photo, The Cable Guy, Unlawful Entry, Taxi Driver, and In Their Skin are prime examples in that the stalkers in them are obsessed with that sense of privilege and contentment their victims seemingly have.
Add Edgerton’s The Gift to that list. In fact, I’d even go so far as to classify The Gift, and several of the films listed, in the subcategory of the “white privilege stalker-thriller.” The protagonists here range from white, middle-to-upper-middle-class suburbanites to white, wealthy urbanites. Their primary conflicts — well before the stalker is introduced — often center around work/financial and/or relationship issues that can be changed. In other words, these protagonists always seem to have viable (but not necessarily easy) choices available to them to aide them out of their predicaments. Sometimes, they’re portrayed as self-made, having come from an impoverished childhood (we tend to root for these characters the most). Other times, they’re born out of privilege. No matter though, their current livelihood — what we see in the moment — is one where they really don’t have to sacrifice much at all.
The antagonists, the obsessives, on the other hand, are often ones who have suffered or are suffering financially, or else they are on the verge of losing everything. Unfortunately, their psychoses prevent them from moving forward and changing their outcomes for the better.
In The Gift, the white, privileged protagonists — married couple Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) — have just moved back to Simon’s hometown of L.A. When the film opens, they’re being shown their future home — a swank, mid-century place in Sherman Oaks with an open floor plan, gigantic fireplaces, (conveniently) wide picture windows, and plenty of sliding glass doors. There’s even a koi pond running from the entrance of the house, the likes of which will obviously play a part in the trauma the couple will later have to endure. We also learn that both have been working in high-end, white collar jobs, the kind of work often coveted by Americana.
Their problems seem evident, even somewhat from the start. We later learn Robyn had suffered a miscarriage and may have had some sort of breakdown, enough to the point where she’d been addicted to prescription pills, and Simon is power-hungry at work, enough so he’s neglected to authentically communicate with Robyn.
When the film’s stalker-antagonist, Gordon (Joel Edgerton), is introduced, the sense of yuppie privilege is never more evident than during his awkward run-in with Simon and Robyn, perfectly set at a home decor shop one step above a Crate and Barrel and several steps up from a Pier One. Gordon seems oddly out of place in that environment, and the protagonists sense that as well. Their meeting is uncomfortably forced as Gordon insists he went to school with Simon, and it isn’t until a bit later when Simon realizes who Gordon is.
During the first third of the film, as Simon and Robyn become acclimated to their new home, Simon’s colleagues, and their kind neighbors, Gordon spends a great deal of time popping by during the most inconvenient moments, interrupting the facade our privileged protagonists have presented…
Gordon offers his friendship, slithering his way into the couple’s good graces by offering extravagant gifts, ones that he feels will balance them out as “equals.” Simon insists that Robyn stop playing sympathetic confidante to Gordon, even going so far as to call Gordon by his nickname from high school — “Gordo the Weirdo.” Naturally, Gordon learns of this, and rather than act as the typical stalker-brute, he takes it upon himself to present a mystery to Robyn about Simon’s past in the guise of a note of forgiveness.
Of course, one of the most important components to an effective thriller is secrecy. Even the secrets in The Gift seem centered around privilege and disparity, caste and inequality. For example, the fancy, Colonial-style home where Gordon acts as host to a “couple’s dinner” in order to impress his old school acquaintance — with only one couple invited, naturally — belongs to the man whom he transports around as a limo driver. Also, the great secret Simon had been harboring from Robyn about Gordon had apparent end results. What I found most interesting was the link between the two men, their relationship as school bully and victim, which ironically introduced a commonality — they both were products of abusive households while growing up. Adult-Gordon desperately wanted to change his livelihood, and what better way to attempt to change it than insinuating his way into his childhood bully’s luxurious life?
The horror of The Gift lies behind the adage that the more things change, the more they stay the same, for Gordon’s revenge seems to center on unraveling the truly nasty side of Simon that had been lingering throughout the first two acts of the film like a bad aftertaste. Once Robyn, his colleagues and neighbors discover how awful Simon is and has always been, the walls of his privileged life don’t merely come tumbling down, they burn as they fall, leaving scorched destruction behind.
The final moments of the film are devastating as Simon is left with a dark, sordid implication, one that not only shows Robyn, the real victim of the entire film, in evident danger, but also possibly (and dreadfully) incorporates Gordon into the privileged lifestyle he’d coveted in the end.
And I won’t say anything more on that.
I’ll just leave the monkey here instead…
For anyone interested in good thrillers, honestly, I can’t recommend The Gift enough. I don’t know if people will see the theme of caste and disparity as I do with films like this, but no matter. The Gift will certainly leave folks talking.