***SPOILERS*** for the film The Gift, starring Rebecca Hall, Jason Bateman and Joel Edgerton.
The Gift is a movie that at its heart is about how there are two kinds of people: people who are just trying to live their live as decent people, and people who bully and stomp on others to get ahead. It’s about how the little guy who plays fair never wins when others play dirty. Unfortunately, a feud between two men gets ugly when the bully, Simon, (Jason Bateman) won’t own up to spreading a rumour about the class weakling, Gordo (Joel Edgerton). This wasn’t a little lie. He claimed that he saw him being molested by another boy after school. It resulted in the student body picking on him because of what they assumed about his sexual orientation. On top of that, his father, assuming that he was gay, disowned him and tried to murder him.
And Simon? He went on to live a perfect little life. Years later, following some marital stress stemming from a miscarriage and subsequent addiction problems of his wife, Robin (Rebecca Hall), the couple moves back to Simon’s hometown, where they encounter Gordo. A series of awkward and increasingly creepy meetings ensue, where Robin attempts to make nice and Simon convinces her that Gordo is a bad guy. They agree to cut Gordo out of their lives and months later Robin gives birth to a baby boy. She had been finding out about Simon’s lies, and he loses his job and his wife in one go.
But the movie doesn’t stop there. Simon comes home from the hospital to get some things for his wife. There is a gift on the doorstep. It contains a recording made months before, when Robin had a dizzy spell and had passed out. The tape then goes on to show that her drink had been drugged and a man (masked, though we know it’s Gordo) walks over to her prone body. He puts her on the bed and begins groping her. Once Simon sees the tape, Gordo calls, saying his revenge is complete because all Simon wants is to hear is that “it didn’t happen.” But he’s not making any promises. The ending is left with Simon unsure if the baby is his, and unsure if he should tell his wife.
I saw this movie in the theater with a friend of mine (also a woman), and we were right there with this movie. It was suspenseful, and Jason Bateman did such a great job as the wolf in sheep’s clothing. He was all charm, but when it all came crumbling down around him or he was confronted, the cracks started to show and you could see that high school bully just oozing out with slimy intent. Joel Edgerton was creepy enough to play Gordo, but believable as a sympathetic Character. Rebecca Hall was amazing as a woman who so badly wants to trust her husband, but knows deep down that she can’t.
But then we hit that ending. We were unsure about what to make of it. We discussed for hours. And in the end, all that we knew is that we were definitely uncomfortable, and we weren’t okay with it.
There are so many reasons why this ending was a problem. From a story perspective, it left you with no one to root for. The first half of the movie puts you pretty solidly in Simon’s court. While it is obvious that he is hiding something and is not to be trusted, Gordo is just creepy, playing an unassuming man who has stalker-like tendencies. The second half builds toward seeing Gordo’s side, and it puts the ball in his court. You are expecting Gordo to be the hero, and for Simon to get his comeuppance. But here’s the thing – Gordo puts himself exactly where Simon was, and he enjoys it. Not only that, but he brought an innocent bystander down with him.
The other side to this that I thought was strange was that it was never addresses what happened to the other kid that was “molesting” Gordon. If people believed it to be true, I’m sure charges were pressed, or at least some kind of sentencing. But this part of the story is left out in favour of focusing on Gordo.
Most problematic of all is the assault. Either way, it is an issue. For one, let’s assume that he did rape her. That makes him a rapist. It’s awful. If he did, Simon isn’t telling, because that would potentially ruin the one thing that he is clinging to, and that is the possibility that the baby is his when he has lost everything else. And he is okay with not telling his wife that she was violated to save that scrap of happiness for himself. The fact that she deserves to know that a strange man had unprotected sex with her without her consent and he is considering not telling her to protect himself from the truth is disgusting. He has no clue if she has any memories of that day. She mentioned to him when he had found her passed out that she was scared, and that she didn’t feel right. And he is just going to let that slide for the sake of his ego.
Now let’s assume that he didn’t rape her. He still drugged her and groped her while she was passed out. No consent, clearly. That means that either way, he assaulted her. No matter how you slice it, the fact that she was definitely assaulted seems lost in translation. It seems to be presented as the better of the two outcomes, so it’s almost like the audience is supposed to think that it’s “not so bad” if he he didn’t go so far as to rape her. I hope for the sake of humanity that viewers can see this. Also, he is fine with being labelled a rapist, because in his mind, being thought of as a guy that drugs and violates women is better than being a bully like Simon? How did that happen?
Gordo dragged Robin into this mess because he was out for revenge. She was an object of vengeance, not a person. She was inconsequential to him in thinking about consequences. The consequences of Simon’s actions left him scarred and broken, but he didn’t give a crap about what assaulting her would do to her. I think that this is what upset me the most, not only because of the disregard for the consequences to her, but also because she was NICE to him. She tried to get Simon to apologize. She was on his side, that much was obvious, but she was just a pitstop on the road to getting back at Simon. He even has the gall to visit her in the hospital and inquire about the baby, for the sole reason of being a creep and to seem all the more threatening to Simon.
No offense to Joel Edgerton, who also wrote and directed, but I was very disappointed by this turn in an otherwise great movie. I understand that this was a movie about moral ambiguity, but to have someone who was so impacted by a lie sink just as low (if not lower) as the pond scum bully really altered this one in my eyes. When I really look back and think about it, it seems like an odd turn because there was no need for it. Simon had dug his own hole by the end of the movie. He had been caught in so many lies that Robin was leaving him anyway, and lies he had told his new boss to get a job were found out and he was fired. His life was already imploding. Karma caught up with him, so why the extra step? Also, because Robin was so nice to Gordo, and she spent the whole second half of the movie trying to convince Simon that he was in the wrong, why not write it as if she spoke with Gordo and they set out to teach him a lesson together?
It was really alarming to me how consent seems swept under the rug, along with the issues of an assault victim. Sexual abuse was treated in this context as a secondary concern. As long as revenge was had and the main bully got what he deserved, it didn’t matter to either of them. Their egos were more important than the very real violation of a woman.
The whole scenario feels uncomfortable and, well…icky. Sometimes this is a good thing. The goal of a movie is often to create discomfort to raise awareness, or increase understanding and empathy. However, I genuinely feel that this was not the case here. My discomfort here was a reaction to how the subject matter was treated, not by the subject itself. A very clear abuse scenario was treated solely as a way to punish the victim’s husband instead of acknowledging that even had the scenario turned out to be fine for him, she could have fallout from this for the rest of her life. In today’s climate, it’s easy to see the flaws in this. Had this film been released more recently, I think it would have stirred up some controversy.
Stock photos from pixabay.com