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Brutal, Disturbing, Vicious & Poignant — “The Gift”

Rebecca Hall in The Gift
Understated performances never get their due.

The big story of the weekend is that you should avoid the Fantastic Four reboot at all costs, but what should you see instead? Consider psychological thriller The Gift.

Its premise seems familiar on the surface. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move to California, close to where he grew up. An awkward former classmate of Simon’s, named Gordo (Joel Edgerton), thrusts himself into their lives with a cloying and creepy attachment. One thing leads to another, and pretty soon Simon and Robyn are terrified by Gordo. Yet The Gift holds more secrets than your average Cape Fear knockoff. It’s a tightly wound thriller of well-paced deceptions and reveals that holds moments of real fright and disturbing vengeance.

The Gift works so very well because control over its plot evolves from one act to the next. Doing this in a spoiler-free way, during the first act, Simon is making the decisions. He’s the one who guides the direction of the story. The most important element is also the most subtle: Robyn acts out of a need to fill many of the expected roles of a wife to Simon. Yet the viewer can catch blink-and-you’ll-miss-them instances that point toward Simon bullying her. He feeds her those expectations and controls her through them. She’s restless, but she doesn’t know why.

The second act is entirely Robyn’s, and it’s the most compelling. She’s paranoid and trapped in her own home, but it’s not just because of Gordo – it’s also because of the subtle pressures Simon exerts over her life. She confronts her own doubts and begins to uncover hidden truths about Simon as well.

I’ll refrain from divulging anything about the third act except to say it’s all about Gordo realizing his control. This makes for a disturbing ending that doesn’t play to any familiar expectations. The final twist is not one that you’ll guess. That’s a rare feat in cinema.

Jason Bateman in The Gift
Jason Bateman plays a subtler form of toxic masculinity.

Its twist is clever because it’s right in front of you the whole time, but it’s also a jolt. Suddenly, the film is making the viewer do the work, hiding answers and forcing the viewer to create their own from whichever truth they decide to put faith in. Since most of the film is about revealing truth and getting closer to being whole, the film gives you an option of what to believe in the end. Is it a story of physical brutality, or psychological manipulation, or of discovering freedom? Only Ex Machina this year has created such a complex and challenging ending, although Ex Machina was much clearer on what homework exactly it wants the audience to take home.

Here’s where the audience will split. For those expecting a more traditional horror movie, a deliberate slow burner might not possess the right kind of big events. There’s creep factor to The Gift, and two of the most effective jump scares I’ve experienced, but this is squarely in psychological thriller territory, not pure horror.

For those wanting a psychological suspense piece with a lot of character, this is your film. It gets inside your head very well, and it keeps you guessing throughout. Its ideas are disturbing and play off the paranoid inferences our own minds start creating everywhere.

All three leads deliver superb performances. Bateman is most famous for Arrested Development, but he shows a skill for subtlety and misdirection here I didn’t expect. He has a scene two-thirds through the film that is perhaps the best moment of his career. Rebecca Hall (The Town) powers through films and has a knack for characters who feel real and accessible. Her role is quieter yet more demanding than the two men. Edgerton (Ramses in Exodus: Gods and Kings) also wrote and directed the film. You can see why he cast himself as Gordo. He’s note perfect, making a small role cast a large and toxic shadow across the rest of the film.

The three fuse and play off each other exceedingly well. Explaining the talent each actor displays on their own doesn’t quite express the devious synergy at play between them. It’s a perfect trio for this kind of film, each one charming, guarded, and needy in turn, one pulling for something the minute another pushes.

One day, The Gift will make a vicious double-feature with Gone Girl. Re-watching the trailer, I’m also impressed that half the things you’re about to see are red herrings:

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section uses the Bechdel Test as a foundation to discuss the representation of women in film. Read why I’m including this section here.

Does The Gift have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Rebecca Hall plays Robyn. Allison Tolman plays Lucy. The awesomely named Busy Philipps plays Duffy. Mirrah Foulkes plays Wendy Dale. Katie Aselton plays Joan. Melinda Allen plays a real estate agent, although she remains unnamed.

Do they talk to each other?

Yes.

About something other than a man?

Yes.

This clearly and easily passes the Bechdel Test. It’s also interesting because so much of what Robyn speaks to her friends about results from the subtle pressures Simon puts on her to fulfill the stereotypical role of a wife. Robyn says she wants to have a family, and she feels it in a removed way, but you never get the idea that she’s made the decision about it. It’s what she wants because Simon puts pressure on her to want it.

The movie’s acts are broken up by scenes of Robyn jogging, yet this seems less for her than it does as a way of releasing something she can’t understand or deal with herself. In fact, the only times she seems to be herself are when she’s around Gordo. She objects to Simon shutting Gordo out of their lives completely, but she allows Simon to bully both her and Gordo into acquiescing to his desires.

It creates a dynamic where Robyn is concerned with stereotypical gender roles not as a self-fulfilling desire, but rather as one that fulfills Simon. Part of the reason why the ending is troublesome on the surface is because Robyn is turned into something to be possessed in the third act. Of course, this isn’t the movie’s commentary on women – it’s a commentary on how Simon views the world and how Gordo can punish Simon. It’s a commentary on men. That doesn’t change the fact that women might suffer in order to make that commentary.

It’s difficult and something of a slippery slope that will inspire a wide range of opinion, but I will say that The Gift finds a way to make many perceived realities into conjectures on the parts of different characters. You really can’t be sure walking out what does or doesn’t happen, or the degree to which someone did or didn’t suffer. In this way, The Gift has its cake and eats it, too.

The implications of all this are right there on-screen, so even if it’s cruel, it’s cruel in order to call out the toxic masculinity that Jason Bateman’s Simon exhibits. Counter-programming Bateman and Edgerton into roles that might make more sense with the casting reversed also serves to exhibit how that toxic masculinity can hide itself in many forms, not just the obvious mustache-twirling, evil villain, film versions. In many ways, The Gift lets you decide just how cruel you want its truth to be, and it forces you into a place where deciding either way is a form of cruelty on the part of the viewer. Do you want to believe in violent, paranoid cruelty or everyday, mundane cruelty?

For that, it relies on Rebecca Hall to thread a needle in a performance that will not be praised as much as Bateman’s and Edgerton’s skilled-yet-showier roles. Hall’s performance offers a third argument: the rejection of both forms of cruelty. In the end, what you walk out of the theater believing may belie your own presumptions and those presumptions that are reinforced by storytelling themes that are repeated in other media ad nauseum. That’s where the genius of The Gift lies, in all senses of the term.

Most will walk out seeing it from Simon’s or Gordo’s perspective, believing in one or the other’s presented truths. To believe in either is to put your faith in victimizers who simply operate on flip-sides of the same coin. Some will walk out recognizing a third route in Robyn’s, a conclusion that must rely on one or the other of the male truths, yet that still exists as its own reality going forward.

The Gift doesn’t say all this or handle it as perfectly as it could – it’s a clear notch below movies like Ex Machina and Gone Girl in how expertly it throws the audience between different perspectives. Yet it does have its own unique way of forcing the audience into a corner, of making us take the homework of thinking and thinking and thinking about it home with us in a way few movies do. That rarity is something special, and it’s unique in many ways to, as David Fincher once put it, “Movies that scar.”

The Gift is very unfair, and that’s the point. It’s left to the audience to decide just how fair its reality is, and how fair everything is after the credits roll, both in the movie’s world and in our own.

Where did we get our awesome images? The featured image is from Entertainment Weekly’s brief review. The 2 in-article images are from Vanity Fair’s interview with Rebecca Hall.

Birdman: Or (The Expected Virtue of Forgiveness)

by Kyle Price-Livingston

My favorite film of the year? Birdman. And not because I love Michael Keaton (though I do), or because I love superheroes (though I REALLY do), but because of Sam Thomson (Emma Stone).

Sam is the fiery, brittle daughter of Michael Keaton’s titular hemidemisemi-hero. She is angry, self-destructive and in pain. She is torn between a desire for her absentee father’s attention and a need to punish him for the years of suffering his selfishness has caused her. Riggan Thomson (Keaton) is vaguely aware of this, but can’t quite tear his focus away from himself long enough to help, so instead Sam watches impotently (Ed Norton pun intended) and angrily rolls herself a joint as her dad spirals toward a complete meltdown. And yet Sam gives me hope.

I’m writing this piece on a tiny pocket notepad which has the words “Foxy Lady” emblazoned on the cover along with a neat sketch of a fox. It was by far the coolest notepad available at the Mayo Clinic in Scottsdale, Arizona. I’m sitting on a cement bench along a nature trail maintained by the facility. I am resisting the urge to poke cacti. I am hoping to see a roadrunner. I am trying and failing to ignore how much I miss weed.

My mother is inside receiving another of her weekly chemo treatments. I am outside because I would much rather be listening to bird song than sitting in a hospital waiting room, and because I’m too angry at my mom to stay in one place for more than a few minutes. It’s not that she did anything specific today, but being at the clinic with her brings up a lot of things I normally try not to think about. Well, I’m thinking about them now, and I’m about to make all of you do the same. Sorry.

My mother and I have seen each other twice in the last 4 months, once in December, a few weeks after her diagnosis, and now this week because my aunt is out of town and somebody needs to drive my mom to the doctors and to her AA meetings. This is the most frequently we have visited in years.

Mom’s inability to drive herself to these things has nothing to do with her cancer. A combination of psychological disorders, drug and alcohol abuse have stripped her of her coordination and of her ability to care for herself. Over the last 2 years she lost her job (subsequently granted disability retirement, thankfully) her car, her pets, her home, and also surrendered control of her finances. It’s actually a testament to her (now decayed) support system that she held on to those things as long as she did.

About a year ago I flew back to the Northeast to help her move the few of her possessions not covered in vomit or animal feces to sunny Phoenix, AZ, where her saintly sister, a psychologist and nurse practitioner, had agreed to take her in and help her get clean. Mom wasn’t thrilled about this plan, but another looming eviction and a sudden hospitalization due to an “accidental” overdose left her without much choice.

The trouble started long before I was born, of course, but I don’t remember being aware of it until I was about 12. I think it was my dad’s concern that first drew my attention to it. Unlike me, Dad was aware of her psychological problems, and of her long tradition of treating them with hard drugs in her youth (crystal meth mostly; young mom didn’t screw around) and booze as an adult (she would later begin to abuse prescription psychiatric medications as well). It’s not as though I hadn’t been to other kids’ houses and seen how their parents acted, I had just always accepted that my mom was…well…kinda weird.

Please don’t think I’m ascribing her weirdness to drug use (kinda the opposite, in fact) but I, in the selfish way kids have, could not comprehend that she even had problems, let alone that she was so miserable in her day-to-day life that she felt there was no recourse but to numb herself insensible. I mean, in my mind, my brother and I were supposed to be the central features in her existence. How could she be miserable with such great kids?

That’s the kind of insidious thought that leads a young mind down a long rabbit hole, ending in the painful conclusion that if she was miserable I must have made her that way, and that I, then, was definitely not as great as I had always assumed.

Realizing you aren’t the world’s foremost genius and artistic talent is part of growing up, I know, but I don’t think you’re immediately supposed to shift your beliefs to the opposite pole. But that’s what happens when your self-image is challenged before you have a fully developed self. My perception of my own value was still very much wrapped up in what I thought she thought of me. This isn’t supposed to be a long piece (hah!) so I’ll spare you the gory details of my formative years, but suffice it to say it took me a long time to untangle my identity from hers. In some ways, I don’t think I’m done with that yet.

I don’t totally buy into the 12 Step Program. Even at the best of times I am leery of organized religion (or organized anything) and the idea that something as intricate as mastering addiction can be broken up into stages is contrary to the way I think most people work. Our brains just aren’t that tidy. Still, when my mother announced, shortly after her arrival in Arizona, that she was rededicating herself to the AA system, I had to work pretty hard to fight off a glimmer of hope. She’d said this before, after all, and never even earned the 1 month coin.

Were Riggan in Alcoholics Anonymous (or Acclaim Seekers Anonymous or what have you) he’d be somewhere pre-Step 1. He might agree to attend a meeting, might chat with people at the punch bowl, but he wouldn’t share, and he definitely wouldn’t agree that he needs to be there. He, like all addicts, is convinced that if he can just hold out long enough, the universe will rearrange itself to fit his needs, and he’ll get everything he ever wanted or deserved. He doesn’t have a problem, the world has a problem. Unfortunately for Sam, “the world” includes her, whether Riggan would ever admit it or not.

To my surprise, Mom has stuck with the process. She has spent the last 8 months slowly working her way up the ladder, rung by rung, until I actually began to wonder if we might reach Step 9 after all. Step 9 is the amends-making stage, where you apologize to all the people you harmed with your addiction. To be clear, I wasn’t sure if I would be able to forgive her, or even if I wanted to forgive her, but I definitely wanted her to bring us to that bridge, and for me to decide if I wanted to cross it. But that was a long way off. And then she fell.

Last November, seemingly out of nowhere, mom tripped and fractured her left hand. She’d been losing weight over the previous few weeks but that wasn’t uncommon, as her eating habits tend to fluctuate with her depression. The fall itself wasn’t that far outside the norm, either. Mom broke her spine when she was a child and now has fused vertebrae in her lower back. Coordination has never been her strong suit, and drugs and alcohol haven’t helped. Over the last 15 years she’s broken her foot, her ankle, her wrist and her arm along with a host of lesser injuries she hasn’t bothered to mention to me, but which I have seen in her fading scars and bruises. Still, this was her first fall since sobering up, and the injury was pretty severe.

A trip to the hospital yielded blood work with alarming results, and 5 days later we received a diagnosis: Stage 5 pancreatic cancer with metastasis to several other organs. Life expectancy: 1 year with chemo, 6 months without. Mom opted for the chemo, primarily, she says, because she wanted time to work her way up to complete Step 9. I learned all of this in the same conversation. I wish I could tell you what I felt, but I’m pretty sure my brain short circuited for a while there, and I have a hard time remembering it clearly. Sounds healthy, right?

3 weeks later I flew to Phoenix again, ostensibly to do the same thing I’m doing on this trip, but really to give her a chance to have the Step 9 conversation with me. There are a bunch of people on her list, but I was the first person outside of this house to be asked to make the trip, primarily, I think, because Mom thought ours would be the easiest of those talks. In some ways, I was a trial run. A low risk gamble. And that makes me angry. Probably unfairly so.

What is definitely unfair is how angry I am at her for waiting until she’s dying to apologize. It’s unfair because this is not something anyone planned. It’s fucking cancer. It doesn’t give a shit what anybody wants. But I feel like a key facet of Stage 9 has been denied to me. I no longer have a choice about whether or not to tell her I forgive her.

Obviously, forgiveness doesn’t work that way, and I clearly am not yet ready to accept her apology, but I can’t exactly tell her that, can I? And that’s the point. I spent YEARS walking on egg shells around her for fear of upsetting her and setting off a chain reaction of self-destructive behaviors that would then be “my fault” and now I’m finally presented with a situation where she is literally asking me to express all the hurt of the last 20 years and I’m in the exact same boat I’m always in with her. Only more so.

Aside: Don’t worry, Mom won’t read this. She doesn’t read any of my writing. When I was 13 I brought her my first completed short story. She was drunk and depressed and, honest to god, put it down halfway through and told me it was “derivative.” She was probably right, but I haven’t showed her anything since.

I find myself torn, as I always am with her, between trying to make her happy and wanting to make her sad. I want her to feel pain and remorse, but I don’t want her to suffer. The idea that someone might use terminal cancer as a manipulative tool is so disgusting that I can barely bring myself to write it, but I can’t quite force the possibility out of my mind, and that colors our interactions no matter how much I try to ignore it.

So we had the talk. She said the right things. She really did. Her list of offenses was long and detailed, and her regret felt sincere…but it wasn’t enough. I really hoped it would be, but it wasn’t. Still, I did my best to say the right things back. She cried. I cried. We hugged. She moved on to the next person on her list, and I went back to being quietly angry.

It’s not that Sam doesn’t want Riggan’s play to succeed. It’s not that she doesn’t want him to be happy. It’s that Riggan continues to put his own desires ahead of his responsibilities as a parent. The thought that he might receive some validation for doing that without demonstrating true remorse is more than she can stand. He’s not actively trying to make her unhappy, he just cannot fathom why he would put her happiness ahead of his. For Sam, the whole thing is yet another in a lifetime of slaps to the face. (Sidenote: A Lifetime of Slaps To the Face should definitely be the title of a 3 Stooges retrospective)

The final scene in the film is…let’s just say it’s analytically problematic. So EITHER Riggan’s suicide attempt is unsuccessful and it fixes his professional life and relationship with his daughter and, oh yeah, his superpowers are real OR he kills himself and what we’re seeing is what happens to him as/after he dies. I’m not going to try to tell you which it is, because I don’t think we’re supposed to be sure.

It’s totally possible that the latter interpretation is correct. If that’s the case, then I take solace in the fact that by the end of the film, Sam is coming into her own as a person, and trying to think about what will actually make her happy. She hasn’t figured it out yet, but she’s moving in that direction.

My preference, though, is for interpretation 1, for a universe in which, confronted with the possibility of losing him forever, Sam is able to accept her father for the deeply flawed (super)human being he is. The pain of the past isn’t forgotten, but she is able to move past it and find happiness in a new chapter of their relationship. I’m not there yet with my mom. I don’t know if I’ll ever be. I don’t know if I’ll be able to look at her empty hospital bed and then stare up into the sky in wonder and joy because her pain is finally at an end, but I hope I can.

An Oscar Snub? “A Most Violent Year”

Jessica Chastain A Most Violent Year

by Gabriel Valdez

A Most Violent Year follows a virtuous man in a time of thieves and gangsters. Its style recalls 70s crime films like The Godfather and The French Connection.

Oscar Isaac plays Abel Morales, an immigrant in New York City who’s trying to expand his successful heating oil business. It’s 1981 and his fuel trucks are being hijacked at toll booths and on-ramps, his drivers beaten and left barely breathing in the middle of the road. His competitors, who are either gangsters or rely on gangsters, want to put him out of business.

What’s an honest businessman to do? Most modern Hollywood films would see him pick up a gun and start getting even. In the style of those 70s crime dramas, however, Abel chooses to respond to this as a businessman first. He knows arming his drivers will result in shoot-outs and all-out war. He knows staying the course will be more difficult and more painful, but he has a vision.

His wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), is the daughter of a gangster, the one from whom Abel bought the company. She constantly threatens Abel that if he won’t rise to his aggressors, then she will. You’re given the feeling that she could end all this in one vicious heartbeat: a street war or a bloodbath. That’s not what Abel wants. He’s dedicated to taking the high road and earning his victory by outmaneuvering his opponents. And yet he trusts Anna enough that when she hides the ledgers from investigating police, he sits hidden along with them.

A Most Violent Year Isaac Chastain

Avoiding the violence in which everyone else partakes doesn’t mean the film is void of action and tense sequences. A Most Violent Year features a shoot-out and the best chase scene of the year, involving cars, trains, and a plain old footrace. There are strong shades of Dustin Hoffman classic The Marathon Man in these moments.

All that’s not to say that A Most Violent Year quite lives up to these films, but being a half-step away from greatness still means you’re very, very good.

It also carries a deliciously mixed message. Abel’s shadow is a gang lawyer named Andrew, played perfectly by Albert Brooks. While Abel’s marriage to Anna is contentious at times, his business marriage to Andrew is all too perfect. These two figures, Anna cooking the books on one end, Andrew treating Abel on a need-to-know basis on the other, means that Abel can take the honest and virtuous path, but only so long as he enables and ignores the actions of partners who don’t.

It offers a theory on American business that may not be popular, but is in keeping with the gang and crime movies of the 70s: that cheating is part of the game, that being an honest success is very possible, but it may require you to ignore all the dishonest things that have allowed your success. It may require you to sacrifice some of the people who worked so hard to get you there.

A Most Violent Year contains tragedy, but it doesn’t treat this concept as tragic, just inevitable. It leaves the viewer to pick up the pieces and draw his or her own conclusions. In that way, it’s a chilling portrayal of American business politics. I wouldn’t call its treatment especially conservative or liberal either. It has a strong enough story that it doesn’t need to make political metaphors. In fact, it’s thankfully drained of these, relying on its ideas, tension, and superb acting to play out the concepts according to the rules of this 1981 New York City we’re given.

The ensemble also includes David Oyelowo (Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma) as a District Attorney investigating Abel. Elyes Gabel is emotionally resonant as a driver whose truck is hijacked.

A Most Violent Year is a film that got overlooked at the Oscar nominations, not as Best Film, but certainly for its acting and writing successes. All its tension comes from not knowing what’s going to happen next, how characters will respond to the larger story and to each other. So many movies follow the same structures these days that being this “in the dark” as a story progresses is a refreshing reminder of one of classic cinema’s strengths. A Most Violent Year is able to feel tense by slowing down and making you think and learn about its characters.

Does it Pass the Bechdel Test?

This section helps us discuss one aspect of movies that we’d like to see improved – the representation of women. Read why we’re including this section here.

1. Does A Most Violent Year have more than one woman in it?

Yes. Jessica Chastain is incredible as Anna Morales. The underappreciated Catalina Sandino Moreno appears in one scene. Annie Funke plays Lorraine Lefkowitz, the owner of a competing heating oil company.

2. Do they talk to each other?

Unfortunately not.

3. About something other than a man?

This question is dependent on question 2, which it doesn’t pass, but when women do speak, it’s about business or escalating conflict. It’s always directed to men, but it’s never about men.

The Bechdel Test is a tool, not a hard and fast guide to a film’s worth. They could have featured more women – I’m not about to excuse it for that. The women they do feature, however, are all capable professionals. The dynamic between Abel and Anna is fascinating. In some ways, he’s the “rock” of the family only because Anna has decided he’s better suited to that guise.

They are both willful characters, but you get the sense he has no real control over her. Oscar Isaac might dress the part of The Godfather‘s Michael Corleone, but it’s Chastain who’s the real threat. Anna contains herself not because Abel makes her, but rather because you get the sense the conclusion is never in doubt for her. She is patient with him and it’s revealed in clever ways that, no matter how capable Abel is, he is in many ways her Lieutenant and not the other way around. It’s an important difference that manages to avoid the old Lady Macbeth route.

The Lady Macbeth route means that he’s powerful and she knows how to manipulate that power. It can be done well, but it’s all too often abused on film. Not so here – Anna is the more powerful, but she restrains herself because Abel is the more legitimate face for the business. There are moments where she seizes that power from him in other parts of their lives, and when she gives it back it isn’t because she’s a wilting flower, it’s because she’s done with the moment. She’s patient, and you get the sense her Plan B is so violent and terrifying that she can afford that patience.

The tagline for the movie doesn’t exactly roll off the tongue: “The result is never in question, just the path you take to get there.”

The fork in the road is the very definition of Abel and Anna’s marriage and business partnership. His path speaks to the struggles of legitimacy in a world that devalues such things. Her path speaks to doing what needs to be done, no matter the price. And yet, that marriage works because she could win every battle between the two, but relents on enough of them to allow him his continued belief in legitimacy and honesty. And, in that way, she is one of the most powerful characters on film this year.

A Most Violent Year could have done better on the Bechdel Test without changing the course of the rest of the film, but it does give us one of the most interesting, confident, and dynamic women of any film from 2014.