My older sister called me last week and ordered me to see The Gift.
"It's not great art," she said, lest I question her taste, "but you will find it of interest. I will say no more."
Because she is my older sister, I did as told.
And I did indeed find The Gift to be of interest. At the core of my research over the past decade has been the proposition that every act of violence is a way of managing shame. This is not a new idea. James Gilligan and others have written about it at length. Most of our better films and literature involve shame and its mismanagement (if it is well-managed, there is no story: He did something bad, he made amends, everyone went back to their quotidienne lives.)
In The Gift, Robyn (Rebecca Hall) and Simon (Jason Bateman) are a well-to-do married couple trying to have a baby. While shopping, Simon is recognized by "Gordo," (Joel Edgerton, who also wrote and directed) a classmate from high school, whom he scarcely recognizes after 20 years apart. We soon learn that Gordo was a "weirdo," one of those kids whose friendship might exile you from the social milieu.
Simon wants nothing to do with this loser but Robyn, intuiting his sense of the tragic, invites him for dinner. In return he leaves a bottle of wine on their doorstep and, demonstrating his gift for the inappropriate, stocks their empty Koi pond with live fish.
Who is this Gordo? A stalker in love with Robyn? A serial killer? Or simply autistic?
As the backstory unfolds, Robyn learns that Simon and a buddy bullied Gordo in high school. They made up a story that he had been discovered in a car, having sex with an older boy. Gordo's father, believing that his son was gay, attempted to kill him. Gordy, unable to handle the shame and notoriety, dropped out and became even more marginalized, never graduating, piecing together a life by driving a limo and doing odd jobs.
Robyn and Simon fight about his treatment of Gordo. Robyn argues that he must apologize. After all, Gordo was nearly killed by his father.
"What's the big deal?" Gordon replies (or something to that nature.) And adds, with much pride: "My dad beat the crap out of me when I was a kid and I sucked it up."
Of course he didn't really suck it up. It may have seemed that because he did not complain about it he had somehow made it vanish. In actuality, he managed it by a defense that Donald Nathanson refers to as "attack other." He became a bully, and Gordo became one of his victims. The shame had passed, like a kind of poison, from father to son, from bully to victim.
Whenever there is a case of violence disproportionate to the offense, a boy bullied for no apparent reason, adults murdered indiscriminately by a rifle-wielding individual run amok, shame, denied or otherwise unrecognized, is the motivating factor.
The realistic treatment of the emotional interaction between three characters, acted with nuance and passion by a fine cast and director, make the Gift an important film and a pleasure to watch.