At one point in the middle of Joel Edgerton’s The Gift, I thought to myself, “This movie is playing me like a violin.” It is taut throughout and includes one of the most suspenseful cinematic scenes in recent memory. It’s gorgeously shot. It juggles potential misdoing among multiple characters for a good chunk of its running time, casting suspicion and then retracting it over and over again, up to the last frame. It does that vicariously infuriating thing that the best domestic thrillers do by making its ostensible antagonist’s harassment of the protagonists seem obvious yet completely unprovable to authorities. Maybe what I responded to the most was that it’s a throwback to one of my favorite sub-subgenres, the late-summer/early-fall domestic thrillers of the ‘90s like Single White Female and The Good Son (as well as What Lies Beneath, to an extent, though it doesn’t have that film’s supernatural bent). What sets it apart from those low-key classics is its firm social consciousness.
From now on, I will be discussing spoilers. As always, I recommend seeing the movie before knowing the particulars of its resolution, though part of the reason I’m running this piece on the Monday after its Friday release is that much of its potential audience will likely already have watched it by now.
The Gift is a psychological revenge flick, and like most revenge flicks, it blurs the line between good-doing and bad behavior as a character tortures in the name of retribution. In this case, the torture is largely psychic, as was its cause: When in high school, Simon (Jason Bateman) consciously outed Gordo (Edgerton) as gay, he set in motion a scandal described as “a big storm in a small town” that brought ridicule to Gordo and caused his father to attempt to set him on fire. Twenty or so years later, Gordo is back in Simon’s life, attempting to befriend him and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall), by giving them gifts and inviting himself over to the house they just bought. When they recoil from “Weirdo Gordo,” the weirdo gets weirder.
It’s made clear that Gordo is, in fact, not gay. This may be an attempt to universalize this character so that he’s sympathetic to straight audiences (as a straight character who’s suffered as a result of someone else’s lie) and gay audiences (as a character who’s experienced homophobia, regardless of his orientation), alike. But it also detaches Gordo’s decided pathology (he’s socially awkward, increasingly menacing, and quite probably dangerous) from his sexual identity. Gordo is not one of those violent and unstable queers who popped up in otherwise terrific thrillers of the ‘90s like Basic Instinct and The Silence of the Lambs. Edgerton, in fact, consciously differentiates weird from queer and suggests that Gordo may also be suffering from PTSD as a result of his time serving in the military. The torture he endured for being perceived as gay came only externally, as far as we can tell.
The Gift does perpetuate the cliched narrative that merely being considered gay is enough to damage a person irreparably, an idea legally refuted by a New York appeals court in 2012 when it ruled that considering being labeled gay as defamation is “inconsistent with current public policy and should no longer be followed.” Reality isn’t so principled, though. People are attacked for being perceived as gay, teens lives are uprooted when they come out to disapproving parents and find themselves homeless. Nationwide marriage equality is not an all-purpose salve. The Gift implicitly asks us to consider this.
Edgerton’s expressive consciousness is carefully honed to the degree that it reminds me of that of Caitlyn Jenner, whose talking points at times seem crafted for maximum inclusion and minimum offense, as if she and her people can spot the outraged tweets a mile away and are making all of the right turns. (Of course, if Gordo were actually gay, The Gift could face the same criticism that Silence of the Lambs and Basic Instinct did, that its LGBT character comes from a long line of queer psychopath stereotypes.) This is not to suggest that Edgerton or Jenner are insincere in their expressed outlooks or that they are merely putting on a show of so-called “political correctness” to maximize appeal. They should be taken at face value, since in the self-serving medium of public expression, doing the right thing and demonstrating the right thing are virtually indistinguishable. Both provide models for more compassionate living.