John Magary grew up in Dallas. He attended Williams College and Columbia University. The Mend, a feature film he wrote and directed, premiered this year at SXSW. His films as director and/or editor have screened at Sundance, BAMCinemaFest, San Francisco, Maryland, Edinburgh, and New Directors/New Films. He lives in New York City.
The Gift, a thriller built around a complicated comeuppance, gets assholes right. I can say this with some authority. I have been, from time to time, a pretty good asshole. From time to time, I have been a pretty great asshole. Happy to needle and deflect, to undercut, to lie when it serves me. I have joked without mercy. I have brushed pity aside in the interest of frictionless self-satisfaction. I think we all do this from time to time, but me, maybe I’m better at it than you?
Jason Bateman, playing Simon the Skeptical Asshole Husband to Rebecca Hall’s Robyn the Giver of the Benefit of the Doubt, got me on Simon’s side early. A chance meeting with a long-discarded high school acquaintance named Gordo, played by the movie’s writer/director, Joel Edgerton, makes Simon wary and a little suspicious. And why wouldn’t he be? Gordo is weird. Played by Edgerton with a reddish dye job, tentative Mid-Atlantic-Pacific-Northwest-Midwest accent and the kind of thick, dated goatee a bassist in an evangelical church backup band might resist growing for fear of looking “uncool,” Gordo is definitely a Gordo, someone with whom, at your high school reunion, you might have a nice five-minute chat full of muted encouragement as you sloppily ask a cater-waiter to pour you a twelfth whiskey soda.
Simon, for reasons that become clear as the narrative pushes along, won’t allow himself the emotional luxury of sympathy. He hammers the point home to Robyn: this guy, he’s off. He’s grasping at an intimacy that isn’t there, and is too flighty to be trusted. And again, his voice is so wobbly, so there’s really no time for him in our go-go world of strivers and carefully selected yet affordable red wines. Robyn, reeling (in a frankly exaggerated, silly, sexist movie kind of way) from a miscarriage and an addiction to prescription drugs, finds Gordo’s manner, the forwardness of his behavior — the movie’s title refers to his penchant for leaving the couple, often via doorstep, increasingly cumbersome presents — oddly disarming. Gordo’s obviously walking around with a lot of pain. Why can’t we let him in? Robyn wonders. Why must all friends be made with grace? Goobers mean well too, don’t they? Maybe goobers listen better?
Edgerton’s script is precisely calibrated and paced, and so the film, lifelike with embarrassment and pity, is irresistible. It lingers. Even knowing that we’re genre-bound, and that thrills must be lurking around the corner — one shock moment in particular is brilliantly handled, utilizing POV and focal length with blunt ingenuity — and that tables will turn and not everything is as it seems, the triangle of Simon-Robyn-Gordo is psychologically rich and pulls us in. We’ve all been repulsed by human awkwardness, and we’ve all regretted that repulsion. We’ve all known a Gordo.
And we’ve all known a Simon. Maybe we’ve all been a Simon? I’ve tried to write a Simon or two. It’s not easy. They don’t typically run around and insult people and poop on the sidewalk. (That would be easier, and more fun, to write.) Most disarm with subtle acts of aggression, and quietly demand you lean in for a closer inspection. It can take years to recognize an asshole, to fully comprehend the gross manipulations — the skilled ones are strategic, especially within the constrictions of a doomed relationship. Simon, in The Gift, has ulterior motives, but they’re not related to anything larger than his own inflated sense of entitlement. He’s not building a weapon, he doesn’t stack bodies in his closet, and he’s not poisoning the groundwater for a windfall of Deutsche bearer bonds. No, he is a true asshole, interested only in spreading a kind of universal awareness of Right Simon. (As annoying as it is, the age-old bleeding heart defense of an asshole being that way because he or she is “just insecure” is basically, if not helpfully, correct.) Simon regrets his past treatment of Gordo only insofar as it’s screwing up his marriage. He ruins a co-worker’s life to protect his family. He hectors his wife relentlessly, and cruelly, about her addiction to prescription pills because he cares so damn much about her. He has his reasons, man. (One is reminded of Daniel Plainview in There Will be Blood: “I can’t keep doing this on my own with these…people.”)
Jason Bateman, from all the evidence I’ve gathered (one podcast interview), seems like a nice and thoughtful man. But he grew up a child actor, in Los Angeles, and has surely seen grade-A jerks come and go. His performance taps into something very raw and, it should be said, very L.A. And it’s a pure revelation. In a very fine ensemble, he stands out. His skepticism feels right, and often feeds off a mean-but-fun sense of humor, and so we identify from the start a kind of worldliness his delicate wife lacks. (Again, the movie’s sexual politics are its weakest element and are what keeps the movie feeling throughout like a throwback. Rebecca Hall is both very good and too good in this.)
Edgerton’s script is careful throughout to resist indicating who, or what, Simon really is. It’s a tribute to the movie’s sophistication, and its bold willingness to walk a tightrope of moral restraint, that the primary reveal at the end is that, on top of being a funny guy, a stern husband, a healthy skeptic, and a salaryman, Simon is also cruel. And that cruelty, in the contours of his life, has made all the difference.