Stephen David Miller

Startup cofounder, AI researcher, podcaster, person, etc.

Review: The Gift

Psychological thrillers have an awful lot to say about psychology. Deep insights from Captain Obvious, I know, but it’s interesting what anxieties our stories betray about us. Maybe your luxurious home won’t make you feel any less alone — maybe its excess will feel empty, terrifying. Maybe you don’t actually know the person you’re in bed with — maybe you can’t really know anyone at all. Here’s Johnny the “provider”, betraying your vulnerability. Here’s Margaret the “nurturer”, brandishing misplaced love like a knife. Monsters terrify in peripheral glimpses; people terrify up close. And the biggest terror of all is nothing, the lack of a pay-off, the fear that your own mistrust might have been the monster.

The Gift’s greatest asset is the same thing its (laughably bad) trailer lacked: subtlety. It begins with a discomfort we’ve all faced, lets that discomfort grow into fear, and gives us just enough to nurture that fear while maintaining plausible deniability. At least for a while. Simon and Robyn run into Gordo, an old acquaintance from high school who seems good-intentioned but…off. Polite obligation leads to a superficial dinner or two, but Gordo doesn’t want some asymmetric nicety — he wants them to care, genuinely care, like he does. Simon doesn’t want to fake it; Robyn wants to mean it, but there’s a gnawing unease she can’t shake. That social anxiety, beyond any jump scare or eerie visual, is the real source of tension here. It’s a problem without a solution: Simon’s “rational” answer feels heartless, Robyn’s “empathy” rings false, our fear echoes the worst sort of upper-class prejudice…but if it’s true, then what? As emotions heighten, that uncertainty weighs heavier. We’d all like to be Robyn, but we’ve probably also been Simon — and, more innately, we’re terrified of being seen as Gordo. For a pulpy thriller, the tension it builds is surprisingly complex.

You might notice that I’m not mentioning the “consequences-from-the-past” theme — the one that dominates that godawful voiceover trailer. In the proud tradition of pulpy thrillers, The Gift also works as a thinly-veiled, hokey morality tale about bullying — it feels tacked on and, luckily, doesn’t overwhelm the movie. But it does mean characters are prone to making profoundly one-dimensional decisions every thirty minutes or so, and nowhere is that more distracting than in the climax. If you want my specific complaints, you can listen to the spoiler section of the episode. For now I’ll leave it at this: this is a surprisingly solid thriller, which thrives in foggy allegiances and doubts and fears. I wish it’d stayed in that haze, where people were just people who you couldn’t quite trust. In the cold light of day, monsters and pawns are a hell of a lot less satisfying.

See my review on Letterboxd