Last night I caught Joel Edgerton‘s The Gift (STX, 8.7) at the urging of an old journalist friend, and now I’m obliged to pay him back. One way or another I’m going to talk this guy into catching another extremely irritating, poorly motivated, button-pushing thriller that adds up to very little. Yes, a much-admired stalker thriller (92% at Rotten Tomatoes) is basically a load of hackneyed cliches that dissolve into slop once you examine them closely. Plus it leaves you adrift and hovering without anyone to identify with because (a) the two lead males are obviously repulsive and (b) the lead female (Rebecca Hall‘s Robin) is almost worse than the guys — an all-but-brainless cypher with a pixie haircut. At times she merely annoyed me; at other times I despised her.

The Gift is basically about a wounded psycho-loser (Edgerton’s Gordon, a.k.a. “Gordo the weirdo”) who skillfully insinuates himself into the life of Jason Bateman‘s Simon, a former high-school classmate who’s now a married, well-to-do security company executive, and who’s just moved to Los Angeles with his ultra-delicate dodo-bird wife (Hall). And then, bit by bit, creepy Gordo causes increasing paranoia and chaos. Simon, it turns out, is a manipulative amoral shitheel who ruined Gordo’s life in high school (or so Gordo believes) with a heartless gay-smear gossip campaign. We’re further informed that Simon is still fucking people over with loose gossip at work so it’s time for him to pay the piper because the chickens have come home to roost…right?

The basic idea is that if you did something cruel in high school you have to pay for this as an adult by being completely destroyed. “You might be done with the past,” Gordo tells Simon, “but the past isn’t done with you.” I’m sorry but that’s almost 100% bullshit. The dawn of every new day tells us to shed our old skins and fears and start anew. Many of us do that. Remnants of past errors or traumas may linger in this or that way (guilt, nightmares, self-destructive habits) but unless you’re a former murderer or child-molester healthy people move on. Sometimes they transcend. We’ve all done things we’re sorry for. I’ll never forgive myself for repeatedly whacking a turtle’s shell with a board when I was seven or eight and causing the poor thing to bleed. (I thought it was a snapping turtle.) But you have to try to forgive yourself and try and grow into a better person. Unless…you know, you’re Josef Mengele and the only option is a black capsule.

Here’s a trailer for a clearly substandard thriller/horror pic called Del Playa, which some have accused of exploiting the Isla Vista killings. It’s about another lonely social-outcast weirdo being picked on by the cool kidz, and then, like the real-life Elliot Rodger, he finally strikes back. With some modifications this is Gordo the Weirdo all over again. The kid has been hurt by other kids and now he’s having his revenge. This is also, of course, what Park Chan-Wook‘s Oldboy (as well as Spike Lee’s remake) was about — the perpetrators of cruel high-school gossip dealing with karma payback.

Anyone who’s seen as “different” in junior and senior high school gets picked on or treated like an outcast weirdo. John Lennon: “They hate you if you’re clever and they despise a fool.” Harris and Klebold were weirdos and got picked on, and then they had their revenge. It’s brutal and no picnic, but that’s high school for you.

I speak from authority because I was a kind of Gordo in high school, and yet I got past it. I was picked on because I had a kind of absurdist, anti-authority attitude about things (and yes, because I was looking for attention in an immature way) but I’ve since enjoyed a kind of revenge. I went on to create a healthy career and have two kids and lead a fairly nice life (except for the attitude aromas of guys like David Poland and James Rocchi and all the p.c. Twitter terrorists). The irony, of course, is that my success arose from that envelope-pushing attitude I was beginning to express in high school. Francis Coppola has said more than once that “the things that get you fired when you’re young are the same things they give you life achievement awards for when you’re old.” Where are the guys who gave me grief back in high school? Who knows but that was then and this is now. 

Life is a tough process, and the cruel assholes (i.e., types like Bateman’s Simon) do win out a lot of the time. Or at the very least a certain percentage of them tend to get ahead. The more disciplined, better-organized ones, I mean. They may not be sweethearts but they’re not 100% monsters. In this or that way Steve Jobs was probably a Simon-type guy. Successful people might be pricks with a selfish streak but they’re usually also industrious and tenacious, and they usually get up early and work on weekends. Life is a series of accidents that happen partly due to luck or a lack of, and partly because of decisions based upon character, and character mostly stems from a person’s ability to learn and grow from mistakes… or not.

I am telling you that unlike what happens in The Gift, there has never been a selfish prick in the history of humankind whose adult life was destroyed because of a single act of cruelty in high school, or who outflanked a workplace competitor because of a single malicious email that was sent around.

And you know what else? Gordo types who go around saying “I had a really tough time in high school and therefore my life didn’t work out” are people with loser attitudes, for the most part. You have to pick yourself up and somehow climb out of the hole. I had a miserable time in high school and I had a case of low-self esteem that would choke a horse, but I eventually pulled myself out of it. It took me six or seven years after high school but I made it.

The Gift is interesting because of the moral ambiguity (the best scene is when an angry Simon offers an apology to Gordo in the most pissed-off way imaginable), but it mostly sticks to bullshit thriller cliches. It could have been written in a much more interesting and exploratory way. It could have asked what specifically makes a go-getter winner vs. a mopey and morose loser type.

On top of which I like Jason Bateman (and not just because he reads Hollywood Elsewhere) and I didn’t like it when he became the bad guy. And Joel Edgerton, whom I saw play Stanley Kowalski on the BAM stage opposite Cate Blanchett, is always playing creeps or pain-in-the-ass types or impenetrable goons of one kind of another. I hated his idiotic red hair and little gold earing in this thing…hated it. And Rebecca Hall’s pixie haircut was driving me up the wall. She’s tall and thin to begin with so the pixie makes her look like an ostrich. All she does in the film is (a) stupidly deny there’s anything weird about Gordo, (b) sit around the home and react fearfully when he starts knocking on their windows and starting his talker-terror campaign, and then (c) starts firing guilt-trip expressions at Simon like mortar shells.

If a guy I hadn’t seen in 20 or 25 years and whom I’d just met at a store had delivered a bottle of wine to a home I’ve just moved into, I would have INSTANTLY told him to get lost and stay the fuck away. And yet Simon and Robin continue to see Gordo for…what, three more social occasions? Robin is particularly irksome. She doesn’t smell the calculated bullshit in Gordo’s demeanor? During their first dinner she and Simon never ask Gordo anything about his life beyond the simple fact that he was in the military? Trust me — I could figure out how loony this guy was within five minutes. We all know what being in the military more or less means. PTSD, nightmares, shots of whisky at midnight, security consultant jobs, aggression, suppressed emotions, fists through the wall, etc.

The Gift, Oldboy, John Lennon, Del Playa, Steve Jobs, Elliot Rodger, David Poland, Francis Coppola and my high-school weltschmerz…it all ties together.