This is a Spoiler Heavy Review of Joel Edgerton’s recent success “The Gift”. Unfortunately there’s no way getting around the meat of this conversation without revealing the ending, so if you haven’t seen the film, this is your warning.
Death is incredibly finite, specifically in film when a protagonist/antagonist meets their demise. It is the end of their story, there is nothing to pontificate about what might happen after the fact because death is permanent. No one dies at the end of The Gift; for this reason, I was admittedly disappointed that this cinematic foray into similar trashy thriller filmography ends with only the brutality of emotional devastation. And while going over what happened in my head, it sounds deliciously savage, the film left me cold and underwhelmed. But as Alfred Hitchcock’s famous quote about surprise versus tension states,
“The conclusion is that whenever possible the public must be informed. Except when the surprise is a twist, that is, when the unexpected ending is, in itself, the highlight of the story.”
The Gift‘s climatic reveal is a boiling manifestation of revenge that only concludes with a simmer, the twist being that one man’s senseless destruction of another man’s life has been his long awaiting downfall. Jason Bateman’s character, Simon, has earned his miserable ending: the film unwraps slowly this alpha male status he holds about himself, identifying himself as a “Winner” with a myopic viewpoint of only being able to succeed by hurting everyone around him before they hurt him. In Simon’s eyes, Joel Edgerton’s Gordo will forever be the “Loser” who neither deserves or has earned the respect of himself or anyone Simon considers his equal. However, the movie takes pains to point out that Gordo is not completely innocent, no matter how many times Simon verbally and physically assaults him. The true twist of the film comes from the fact that Gordo’s revenge against Simon is so deeply rooted in viciousness, that he turns to psychological torment by implying that he may or may not have raped Simon’s wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall), a Schrodinger’s Rape if you will.
If Simon addresses that his wife might have been raped, than the baby she has might not be his. If he doesn’t address it, he submits to a constitution of never trusting his wife and would-be child and the truth will always be infallible and non-existent to Robyn. This movie relies on the audience being stunned by the implications, but nullifies the real world situation. Ignoring the fact that Simon could very easily show Robyn the evidence Gordo left behind to at least prove his suspicions about him were not unfounded, the movie’s intention is to instill this forever uncertainty in Simon’s mind that his life has been violated in such a way that he can never be sure of what Gordo did or did not do. He is a man who has spun so many lies for so long, it isn’t possible for him to believe the truth anymore.
But this revelation just makes Robyn’s character a pawn in the overall scheme of themes. She doesn’t find out about the DVD that reveals her maybe-rape. That 100% makes her value as a character less important, which was already on the decline once she was revealed to be pregnant (but more on that momentarily). The immediate arguments I’ve found for this is that it isn’t a secret for her to find out because lies are the root of destruction in both Gordo’s and Simon’s lives and that Gordo was trying to save Robyn from Simon’s long-gestating sadism, but the fact of the matter is that he is still a stalker. He did break into their home and film her sleeping after drugging her (if we’re to believe that he did not rape her, and I admit I don’t think he raped her per-say), he also recorded their conversations, stole their dog and killed the fish in the pond, and lied about his own personal life. The ambiguity that surrounds Gordo’s true character mixed with these actions get lost in Robyn’s character arc. Even with the information she does know, Robyn never confronts Gordo on these things, she just gives him the benefit of the doubt because she really just comes to hate her husband by the end of the movie.
So what is supposed to be her agency?
The thing that The Gift like so many other movies do, is that it boxes in the wants and desires of men and women. Typically the rewards for heroes in films can be boiled down to romance and babies. Men are rewarded with women and women are rewarded with children. The Gift is smart in that it does take all of these “awards” Simon has accumulated for himself, including a job promotion, a fancy house, a beautiful wife and a newborn son, and tears them away from him by revealing that he’s just as much of an antagonist as Gordo is. Robyn’s reward at the end of the movie is a baby, which up until the birth she seemed pretty indifferent about. Now here’s the thing, it never seemed to me that Robyn was that invested in having a baby, it seemed more like a reactionary response to being a perfect wife for Simon. This movie seemed to taking the discussion of building a family in a nuanced direction where maybe Robyn didn’t really want to have a child and that her pill problem (vague as it is) was indicative to a self-destructing behavior that would make her an unsuited mother. This movie early on creates a sense that Simon and Robyn’s marriage is forced but malleable, and that Robyn was rather uncomfortable in this presumed role as the wife. However, her character, like Gordo’s for the most part, is as informative as a Facebook profile but not really any denser than that. It seems like nitpicking to complain about a movie that thrives on ambiguity and suspicion that it doesn’t have enough character work done, but this movie presents Robyn as the real protagonist.
The pregnancy arc throws her into what could be a parallel to Rosemary’s Baby, but ultimately deviates back to the rivalry of male aggression and how she is a component of that. Rosemary of Rosemary’s Baby was proactive but also incredibly vulnerable. There’s no sense of Robyn’s paranoia or emotional damage acknowledged by the last half hour of the film. By negating Robyn’s importance in the film’s climax, it stalls the character of any real growth. Yes, she concludes that Simon is a raging asshole and she should not be with him but this is from the guise of Gordo’s direction. And while prior to her pregnancy she grew cautious of Gordo, the immediate importance of protecting herself and the baby seems to be put on the back burner even when discovering the truth about Simon. All we have to go on is the implications of what Robyn is going through and what she does after the movie, and since the film makes her the hero doesn’t she have the right to know about Gordo’s DVD? It just makes it seem like her decision to leave Simon at the end is manufactured as opposed to being a triumphant moment for the character. By withholding that information from her Simon is still manipulating her, robbing her of her dignity and independence from him.
The factor of whether or not Robyn had been raped at all is an ugly stigma of masculinity. Considering the “reward” system again, Simon achieved his status through lying, bullying and manipulation, thus rewarding himself with a beautiful wife whom (he hypothetically) “saved” from a pill addiction by giving her a new house and impregnating her thereby giving her her “reward”. Now his “reward” and the physical representation of all of his achievements has been violated, ultimately desecrating his manliness. Again, the point of Gordo’s revenge is to instill all of this psychological doubt into Simon’s head, but this implication that he is less of a man because his wife was potentially raped, sidelines how that violation of trust would affect the person who was actually violated. Gordo’s behavior around Robyn, when she’s aware of him, is considerably kind as she is kind to him, but that makes what we know he did to her all the more nasty. The lack of a resolution for Robyn is in my mind, why the ending failed to leave an impression on me. This is a revenge flick that thinks it’s congratulating itself on subverting the expectation of who the “winner” and the “loser” truly are, but not realizing that all of these characters end up being losers. Except for Allison Tolman…and the baby I guess.
Special thanks to Disqus user rowsdower for the phrase, “Schrödinger’s Rape”.