By Neal Gabler
One surprising film that captured the national zeitgeist recently was a sly thriller called The Gift. It burrows into the national psyche to address America’s current obsession with “winners” and “losers” and the unfairness in how power is distributed. Everywhere you look – from political campaigns, both Democratic and Republican, that are focused on the haves and have-nots, to much of the Internet – people are upset. They are angry that they are being bullied by folks who have more power – and sometimes lots more money – than they have.
You feel a tension in America now between “us” and “them.” This is not about the usual suspects of polarisation – conservatives and liberals. It is “us” and those myriad groups that the public feels have disempowered them. Because bullying isn’t just an issue for children any more. It is an issue – perhaps the issue – for everyone.
As for The Gift, on first blush, It doesn’t seem much like a cultural parable. It stars Jason Bateman as Simon Callum, a successful young executive in a security firm, and Joel Edgerton, who also wrote and directed the film, as Gordon Mosley, a high school classmate of Simon’s whose life has gone in the opposite direction.
Simon and his wife, Robyn (played by Rebecca Hall) – appear to have a perfect life: He has landed a big, new job, bought a fabulous new house and resettled in Los Angeles, the city where he grew up. Then a threat slowly emerges. The threat is Gordon, whom the couple meets by chance. He begins by leaving gifts at their door, then starts showing up at odd hours. Simon finally decides to put a stop to it because, as he says, Gordo is a “weirdo”.
But it could be that what really rattles Simon is, as he tells Robyn, that Gordo is a loser. In a world that Simon clearly divides into those who win and those who don’t, Gordo is on the other side of success. Simon doesn’t deal with those sorts of folks.
Denigrating Gordo, Simon may sound a bit like Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, who also divides the world into winners and losers. But Trump is a beneficiary of something much larger in America that the film is onto: The United States is a winner and loser society.
That is how most Americans think of it. They have long been told that anyone in the US who wants to succeed, can. Casting aside the increasing impediments to social mobility, such as high college tuition costs and the loss of high-paid, blue-collar jobs, the onus is entirely on the individual. Surveys show that Americans strongly believe it. In fact, among industrialised nations, Americans are the only people who believe that they have the power to determine their own destiny.
Yet, however much Americans espouse it, that belief is shakier than they let on. Many Americans increasingly feel, deep down, that the game is rigged. That the people who run the country – the economic, political and intellectual elites – get all the advantages. Average Joe can’t win.
We know people feel this way because they say so. It is what unites Tea Party activists and Senator Bernie Sanders’ supporters, reactionaries and radicals. Both sides rail at the abuse of power and the power of abuse. They may not agree on much, but they see themselves as victims of the same force: bullies.
In The Gift, Gordon, at first, seems to be trying to ingratiate himself with Simon, a condescending winner. He even tries to appease him. Hence the gifts. Most Americans are more likely to grouse. Most seem to believe that you don’t appease bullies. At best, you get a bully of your own to fight them. Hence Trump.
But, as The Gift suggests, it is a tough fight. Not only because the bullies wield the power, but also because their success seems to wash away all their sins. In America, success justifies itself.
If it is a difficult fight, it is also a confusing one. And that’s another thing the film gets right. One of The Gift’s achievements is how it gradually shifts our sympathies. Viewers start by identifying with Simon, viewing Gordo as a virtual stalker.
But as the film proceeds, something happens. And here I have to signal a SPOILER ALERT. It turns out that Simon, who claims to barely remember Gordo, actually told an ugly lie about him in high school that ultimately ruined Gordo’s life. In fact, Simon turns out to be precisely one of those conscienceless bullies, a kid who ran for high-school class president on the slogan “Simon Sez”. Which meant if he said it, it happened. The world was his.
Since he had deemed Gordo as a born loser, Simon felt entitled to do anything he wanted to him. That makes Gordo not a creep but a victim of the powerful – just as most Americans feel they are.
So The Gift is a parable both of the unfairness of the distribution of power and of the fissure between what we want to believe about American success and what we know about the betrayal of that belief – about the game and those who rig it. In the end, Simon has bullied and lied his way to success – a perversion of the American success story. Gordo, after even more bullying from Simon, does deliver a comeuppance to his tormentor. But he must corrupt himself to do it. That’s the way it is when you live in a bullying world. Americans are angry at their seeming impotence. They blame the rich, the poor, the bluebloods, the immigrants, the government, both political parties – anyone who they think has more power than they do. But, like Gordo, there is not all that much they can do to change it without risking their own moral authority, which may be the film’s most telling point.
The Gift, then, doesn’t deliver catharsis, as most movies of its ilk do. There can be no justice – only revenge or continued impotence.
Neal Gabler is the author of “An Empire of Their Own: How the Jews Invented Hollywood” and “Life: The Movie: How Entertainment Conquered Reality.” He’s working on a biography of Senator Ted Kennedy.