“The Gift”–Nothing is Free

The Gift movie

The Gift is a 2015 American-Australian psychological thriller  written, co-produced, and directed by Joel Edgerton (Academy Award nominated for his role in “Loving”). This is his directorial debut, and it is a winner!

Darkly unnerving, The Gift first conveys a vibe of horror, but then the narrative moves in the direction of “Fatal Attraction”, with a deft maneuvering of plot, character, style, and tone. No blood or gore, but a heart-pounding series of scenes without a stewed rabbit.

The film stars Jason Bateman (of “Ozark” and “Arrested Development” fame) and Rebecca Hall (“The Town” and “Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) as an affluent couple intimidated by Gordo, a former high school classmate of Simon’s, played by Edgerton.

Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Hall) are a forty-something married couple whose life is going mostly as planned, except for the unfulfilled desire to have a baby. When a chance encounter with Gordo happens in a furniture store, their world devolves into a harrowing tailspin. Simon doesn’t remember Gordo at first, leading the viewer to believe a con may be going on. But after a series of devised encounters and mysterious gifts, Simon begins to remember high school with Gordo. A horrifying secret from the past is uncovered after more than 20 years. As Simon’s wife, Robyn, becomes aware of the relationship between Simon and Gordo, she begins to wonder if she really knows her husband. Simon hopes that bygones will be bygones. But Gordo retorts: “You’re done with the past but the past is not done with you.”

Hitchcockian in its buildup to Simon’s past sins, The Gift raises the question: Is it possible to lay ghosts to rest? This is the territory of karma: what impact one’s actions and words have on another may be obliterated from memory by the agent but not by the recipient. The Gift is both eerie and terrifying, speculating about just what happened in Simon and Gordo’s past. This film is a slow burner, but the theme and writing are superbly executed.

The ambiguity in morals of Simon and Gordo keep shifting the viewer’s loyalties as we see past events from both perspectives. Every plot twist and turn is virtually unpredictable and psychologically compelling. Is it really viable to say winners keep on winning because they deserve it and losers keep on losing because they deserve that too? Everyone –Simon, Robyn, and Gordo–is different from who they seem to be in the opening scenes, and even minor characters are surprising. The Gift should be seen!

 

Note: Available to stream on Netflix.

 

An Inspector Calls–Nothing Will Ever Be the Same


An Inspector CallsThe BBC mystery An Inspector Calls (2015),  based upon the 1947 J.B. Priestley play by the same name, is a morality tale for our time. Set in 1912 Arthur Birling, a wealthy self-made industrialist, has hopes of a knighthood and implicit social elevation through the engagement of his daughter to an aristocrat. Inspector Goole (the superlative David Thewlis) brusquely arrives, , announcing he is there to investigate the suicide of a young woman named Eva Smith. At first the Birling family claims not to know anything about her but Inspector Goole begins revealing that they do.

As the Inspector interviews each family member, the investigation progresses, unfolding secrets and lies. The family’s past actions are brutally exposed. Inspector Goole lays bare the family members’ lack of awareness of the impact their callous behavior has had on Eva Smith. “We don’t live alone upon this earth. We are responsible for each other,” the Inspector admonishes.

In one-to-one interrogations with the husband, wife, daughter, fiance, and son, Inspector Goole dissects the family’s hypocrisy, self-delusion, and cowardice. Arthur’s wife (the extraordinary Miranda Richardson) thinks the worst fate is a loss in social standing, unconcerned with the death of Eva Smith. Their daughter is also complicit. The fiance has unclean hands as well. The mother and son combine to finally push Eva over the edge. In addressing each of the family’s self-absorbed, self-protecting attitudes and behavior, Inspector Goole addresses how deeply damaging their actions are and what constitutes human decency.

An Inspector Calls is perhaps most provocative for its sharp rebuke of the family-centered, but highly insular and exclusionary views of Arthur and his wife, who believe individuals should protect themselves and their families at all cost, regardless of consequences to others. One may never know how actions may affect another, perhaps even throughout another’s lifetime, and so one must be aware and be kind. No actions are without consequences.

The plot is simply superb, tightly woven, and relentless in ratcheting the tension higher and higher. The lessons ring as true today as they did in 1912. David Thewlis performance is so understated that the effect is even more spellbinding.

An Inspector Calls is a clarion blast, warning human beings to care for those beyond their own inner circle, demonstrating a more inclusive attitude and empathy for those with less good fortune. The play is about identity and tribe–nothing will ever be the same.

Note: Available on Amazon Prime.

 

 

 

“Unforgotten”–The Power to Recall

 

Unforgotten PBS series

This British crime drama (PBS Masterpiece Mystery), comprised of three episodes in two seasons, focuses on one stone-cold case per season. Each involves a murder at least three decades old. The detective team– Cassie Stuart (the wonderful Nicola Walker of “Last Tango in Halifax” and Sunny Khan (the perfectly cast Sanjeev Bhaskar of “Indian Summers”)–solve each cold case in a delicate balancing of tension with hints of romance.

In Season 1 of Unforgotten the detectives discover the 1976 remains of a teenage boy found in the sub-basement of an apartment complex. No one but the two detectives seems to care or expect closure to the case, presuming any persons of interest would be untraceable or dead.

Unforgotten, like all good mysteries, creates encrusted layers of complex clues, red herrings, and surprises. There is no last-minute perpetrator inserted to fool the viewer. Nor is the culprit easy to guess in the first few minutes of watching. Characters are inserted in such a way that the viewer wonders where the interrelated scenes are going– a priest who helps the homeless, an older man losing patience with his wife’s descent into dementia, a woman tutoring students for their exams, and a man who obsesses over political power. There’s no indication that any of them know each other — or, really, could possibly know each other.

Season 2 of Unforgotten takes the drama up a notch. The detective team investigates another cold case– of a middle-aged man stuffed into a suitcase. His past is sordid. As the two detectives investigate the texts of possible suspects left on the pager of the deceased, secrets and lies are revealed for each of the persons of interest. But, all of them have rock-solid alibis. Questions of what constitutes justice are provocative. The two detectives eventually solve the mystery.

What distinguishes a mystery about a cold case is the stories of older people who have tremendous arcs revealing a complex series of rebirths: their pasts so complicated that who they are in the present is virtually unrecognizable. All middle-aged and old people were once young, with challenges and sex lives they may wish to forget but are not forgotten. In Unforgotten the history of each character– of their secrets and regrets– is the core narrative.  Like all good stories, the characters’ arcs reveal who we were, who we have become, and who we could be. Unforgotten is a stunning melodrama!

Note: The two-season series has now ended, but can be seen on PBS.com. Season 3 of Unforgotten is now in production.

 

“The Look of Silence”–Beyond Words to Forgive

The Look of Silence movie

This film (2015) is a companion piece and powerful account of the 1960’s genocide in Indonesia, a follow-up to Joshua Oppenheimer’s debut and Oscar-nominated documentary “The Act of Killing” (2012). Less horrific but more emotionally compelling, “The Look of Silence” is a haunting revisiting of the killing fields of Indonesia and the US’s role in the carnage. (The US purportedly promised gifts to those who rid the country of “communist resisters”.)   More than a million people were slaughtered.

An Indonesian eyeglass salesman named Adi Runkun is investigating the brutal murder of his brother back in 1965 during the dictatorship’s purge of “communists”.   While selling eyeglasses and giving eye exams, Adi discovers the men responsible for the murder. As a metaphor perhaps for “seeing”, the eyeglasses that Adi provides to  the murderers still prevent them from comprehending the enormous suffering and ruin that they have inflicted on millions of survivors half a century after.

The scenes are startling and unforgettable, filming family members who have to live in the village alongside the murderers of Adi’s brother and the brutalization of his father. In between investigating the background of the killing fields (=holocaust), Adi and his mother are shown bathing his fragile emaciated father, who was also a victim of the holocaust. “The Look of Silence” is brilliant in focusing on one family’s pain and suffering fifty years later, still reeling from the unthinkable loss, with the killers still in power and exhibiting no regret or remorse.

At times government officials even boast as they revisit the killing fields. Adi forgives them, but the viewer will not be able to forget! “The Look of Silence” is a documentary not to be missed about government’s inhumanity in the name of fighting communism. It is not easy to watch.

Note: Rated PG-13 but definitely NOT for that age group!  Available on Netflix as a DVD.