Right away, the cinematography of The Gift implies something is not right with the film’s central couple, Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall). As Jim Hemphill writes in his review of the film for Paste:
[Director Joel] Edgerton’s eerily still and angular compositions, in which Simon and Robyn are repeatedly framed through glass, like bugs under a microscope, create a sense of unease right from the start, implying that the couple is on shaky ground even before Simon’s old high school classmate Gordon (Edgerton) shows up.
The cinematic language tells the audience immediately that the ostensibly happy, well-to-do suburban couple is not all they seem. Of course, for the thriller genre to function obviously something has to be somehow “off” for the film to work, but The Gift’s subtlety is not so much in its foreshadowing the threat from without, but the threat within.
The film opens in what will soon become the couple’s new home overlooking Los Angeles. Most immediately, the new house is characterized by wide open spaces easily visible from the outside through large windows. Visibility turns out to be one of the most crucial plot points in The Gift: Gordon is constantly leaving gifts outside of the couple’s house while they’re gone, Simon works in surveillance, Robyn often wipes away fog to stare out her window or shower door, Simon orders private investigators to sabotage his rivals and Gordon’s past with Simon is marked by the latter having allegedly seen something that was meant to be hidden. Visibility—or rather, the possibility of visibility—drives the film in a fairly routine way. But what I find more compelling about The Gift is the violation of the home as tantamount to violation of the body.
As mentioned, there is a divide between Simon and Robyn right from the film’s outset: the first time they speak to one another they are on opposite sides of glass. Gordon’s creepiness, deceptiveness and apparent stalking are red herrings for the real monster, that is, Simon. Like most films of the horror/thriller genre (and, really, films in general), the drama hinges on the relationship between two men as balanced by a woman. Eve Sedgwick calls this kind of relationship—where men relate to one another through an otherwise unimportant woman—homosocial desire. However, for the first two acts, Robyn is the narrating agent. Robyn frames the world for us and we see Gordon’s weirdness and social ineptness and Simon’s violent pettiness from her perspective.
Early in the film Gordon is shot from medium distances, his form sags a little and his auburn goatee and dusty jacket look tacky and out of place amid the otherwise sleek, modern artifacts of suburbia. Each frame he’s in locks on his cold stare into the camera, which is especially creepy when he’s staring through a window or shopfront. Robyn turns her back to him frequently and his voice is a meek chirp. The audience is made to feel frightened for Robyn when she spends so much time around him. The gifts he regularly leaves at the couple’s doorstep are taken to be an obsessive violation of their privacy. Robyn voluntarily spends a lot of time with him, especially early in the film, and the camera lingers on Gordon staring at her turned back or her image fading out of focus or frame. This puts Gordon at ever greater power, which makes Robyn vulnerable, and the audience is made to fear for her.
But Gordon never puts Robyn in danger. When Simon makes fun of Gordon, Robyn defends him; when Simon is outraged or threatened by Gordon, Robyn thinks the best of him. Based on genre conventions, we’re supposed to take Robyn as a misguided caring figure: indeed, a mother-to-be whose capacity for love makes her unfit for the cruel, real world. So Simon, the assertive husband, must protect her from the danger Gordon poses.
But Gordon isn’t a threat. He’s just weird. Robyn is weird too. They’re both lonely, both insecure and both feel trapped. They’re friends. It’s Simon who brings violence into the relationship and it’s Simon who worms his way into Gordon and Robyn’s relationship and shifts the focus onto his own past with Gordon. When Simon imposes himself on the relationship, Robyn becomes paranoid, she starts having nightmares about Gordon, she starts feeling anxious in her own home and more of the film takes place at night, following her over her shoulder as she tiptoes toward lights that shouldn’t be on and sounds that shouldn’t be coming from inside.
The film compels us to fear Gordon even after Simon asks him to leave the couple alone. Gordon is nowhere to be seen but the fear of him lingers. Robyn unravels and Simon’s crudeness turns to impatience. He condescends to her, he mocks her, he barks orders at her to get better and shames her for feeling anxious. At about the point that it becomes clear that Simon is more of a threat than Gordon, Robyn starts shrieking at him to take her seriously. It’s a deeply gendered emotional display but I feel like it works because we watch Robyn try every other tactic to get Simon’s attention but only hysteria captures his interests. Aevee Bee discusses a similar scene in 1981’s Possession where Isabella Adjani’s character can only limit her husband’s power by screaming at him; she can’t disempower him and she can’t empower herself, but she assert her presence by screaming, even if in the long run it only perpetuates the gendered power differential between them. As Bee writes:
…he clearly doesn’t respect her agency at all, so this is all she can do to make him shut up. He can be scary and violent but he’s always so terrifying reasonable, and that’s a power he has and uses over her that she is fighting in the only ways she has. (Bee, Aevee, Gita Jackson and Nick Dinicola. “Danger.” from “Critical Discourse.” 02. Critical Distance. Aug 27 2015.
Only when Robyn acts like a shrill damsel in distress does Simon react. This is the point when the film becomes more interesting as narrative agency shifts from Robyn to Simon. Robyn learns about Simon’s past, how he manipulates people, how he bullies them, how he gets off on cruelty. This is where casting Jason Bateman deserves most of its credit. Whether Bateman has been typecast or if he just doesn’t have a very wide acting range he always seems to find his way into the role of a talented but luckless dad-type just on the young side of middle-aged. Without the disarming sweetness of Michael Bluth in Arrested Development or the youthful wanderlust of Mark Loring in Juno Bateman’s character shows his ruthlessness and self-absorption. He lies to people to get what he wants and he threatens the people who control access to what he wants.
Simon eases Robyn’s mounting paranoia by assaulting Gordon and telling Robyn that they made peace with one another. Which works: Robyn forgives Simon, the couple have a baby and Gordon leaves them alone. In the last act, though, The Gift sharply turns. Simon takes over narrating duties, Gordon reveals that, actually, he was stalking the couple and he did sabotage Simon’s life to get revenge for something that happened in their shared past. The homosocial relationship is validated and Robyn becomes irrelevant in the men’s struggle for power over one another.
Gifts, in The Gift, are gestures of power. Gordon sends the couple gifts to weasel into their lives, Simon uproots Robyn to a new city to spackle over her deteriorating mental health, Robyn becomes pregnant so she can belong in her community. The violence of gift-giving becomes most overt in the third act, when Gordon reveals his conspiracy against Simon. Gordon tells a postpartum Robyn about Simon’s assault, Simon is fired for framing a business competitor (presumably Gordon handed the evidence over to Simon’s bosses but the film doesn’t clarify this), and Gordon leaves three final gifts for Simon: a key to the couple’s home—a penetrative object to forcefully breach their private domain—a CD recording Simon making fun of Gordon when he isn’t around, and a video of Gordon drugging Robyn and looming over her body. Gordon calls Simon and assures him that he didn’t rape her, or maybe he did. The point being that Robyn’s child may also be Gordon’s.
The infant and, more importantly, Robyn’s body, becomes the battleground for two men to compete with one another. This is where the most fascinating thing about The Gift unravels. Whether Gordon raped Robyn or not, the point is that he could have and that power is exerted against Simon and Robyn is made irrelevant in that equation irrespective of the fact that for most of the movie she was the central agent navigating around domestic abuse; which made for a much more sophisticated film. Because Gordon’s frequent penetration of the couple’s home actually did occur and because gifts in this film are coercive, the act of breaking and entering is a sort of rape.
If that seems thin, consider that Gordon impresses the couple by using his boss’s home to host the couple one night against their will wherein Simon, pretending to be Gordon mockingly forces himself onto Robyn, the grudge Gordon holds against Simon stems from their high school experience where Simon spreads (false) evidence that Gordon was raped by an older student. Sexual assault is the exchange between these characters.
So Robyn was wrong for caring about Gordon, she really is too naive and considerate for the real world and she really does need a good strong husband to keep her safe: the point of the movie becomes that Simon is an inappropriate match for her because he attracts too much danger. The patriarchal view of the wife as care-giver and the husband as protector is reinstated and upheld.
That disappointed me because, until that point, the camera followed Robyn in such a way to make us fear for her around this weird lonely stranger but feel safe around her husband when the latter posed the real danger, to her and to everyone else around him. Near halfway through Mike Leigh’s 2008 film Happy-Go-Lucky the main character, Poppy (Sally Hawkins) drunkenly wanders into a construction site one night and talks to a homeless man with visible mental health issues. The scene is long and quiet. It’s tense because the audience, again, is made to fear for a woman in a public space at night. We don’t know what this crazy hobo is going to do and she just keeps talking to him and sitting with him.
And then nothing happens.
Poppy’s trusting and (sigh) happy-go-lucky nature doesn’t put her in any danger with the disenfranchised figure. The only character who poses any danger to her is her driving instructor (Eddie Marsan) who has a crush on her. The trusting woman in the film is under the greatest threat by men who feel entitled to her body.
I’ve been noticing a loose trend in movies lately, one that, honestly, may go back much farther than I realize. But films like No Good Deed, The Purge and Labor Day and games like The Castle Doctrine keep hammering on the sexist ideology that there are strange, bizarre men lurking in the shadows waiting for the opportunity to slip between the cracks of the suburban fortress and endanger our sweet, kittenish women who just don’t understand how scary the outside world is. The solution these texts imply is that the home needs a man who is adequately violent and violent in the right direction to keep wives safe.
Movies like Happy-Go-Lucky and the first two-thirds of The Gift resist that and frame instead the much more likely domestic danger: the violent men who are entitled to a place in that home and who can coerce women to stay. Obviously I’m not saying that husbands are dangerous to women, but perpetuating the fear of external threats allows us to not only ignore the internal ones, but validate and encourage the figure of the violent, protective husband.
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Further reading: Hutchinson, Pamela. “CA Lejeune: the pioneering female film critic who changed our view of cinema.” The Guardian. Mar 2 2015.
Lisi, Jon.”Revisiting Girlfriends: A Forgotten Film of Second-Wave Feminism.” PopMatters. Nov 5 2015.
Kunzelman, Cameron. “On Why I Will Never Play The Castle Doctrine.” This Cage is Worms. Jul 24 2013.