Delivering The Right Gift
I have a theory about Paula Hawkins’ perfectly acceptable but (to me, anyway) not especially interesting novel ‘The Girl On The Train’ – its title offered an ironclad guarantee of what was inside. There would indeed be a girl (actually a woman) and she’d be on a train. But there’s also a passivity; she’d see something rather than perform an action. It’s a brilliant title that allowed readers to identify and told them exactly what to expect.
This is about crafting something unexpected, and where it ultimately gets you. To explain, I’m going to use an example.
This year, the films ‘White God’ and ‘Beasts of No Nation’ weren’t the only ones overlooked at the Oscars; genre films rarely get a look-in except in the SFX and craft categories. I make no bones about preferring intelligent genre movies to worthy, manipulative award-chasers like ‘Lincoln’ or ‘The Butler’ – and one of the best I’ve seen in a long while is Australian Joel Edgerton’s ‘The Gift’.
Here’s a brief outline;
It starts like the prelude to a horror film, and indeed, continues to make you think that’s exactly what it’ll be for half an hour. Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman are Robyn and Simon, a perfect couple buying a house in the Hollywood hills and trying for a baby. Then Simon bumps into an old schoolfriend, meek Gordo, clearly a rung down the social ladder. Gordo leaves a gift outside their house, a bottle of good wine, and – you guessed it – gradually insinuates himself into their lives.
The formula is set for a stalker-thriller or perhaps a ‘Harry, He’s Here To Help’-type story. There’s something indefinably creepy about the interloper – he’s played by Australian writer/director Joel Edgerton – and soon he leaves the couple another gift. What do you do if you’re being befriended by someone who isn’t really quite your cup of tea? Invite him for dinner and make it clear that this will be a one-off occasion?
Knowing genre films as I do, I was checking my watch for the screaming and glass-breaking to start. And here’s the kicker; it doesn’t. Edgerton has something far more troubling up his sleeve. You’ve been tricked. And where the story goes from this point has real moral resonance even as it ramps up the thrill-factor.
Of course, if Polanski had made this or if it had been in French, ‘The Gift’ might have got an Oscar nod. Instead it becomes an also-ran – but I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days after.
This is what happens when films and books do something a little bit differently to what readers and audiences expect. ‘The Girl On The Train’ did what it promised. ‘The Gift’ takes a better route. But which pleases the end user more?
This is always my dilemma. If I wanted the really big bucks I’d write something more traditionally formulaic, but it’s not in my nature to do that.
‘White God’ and ‘Beasts of No Nation’ both have unusual subject matter, and will draw intrigued audiences. ‘The Gift’ has a seemingly familiar subject – but it turns out to be not the one people paid to see. The message is clear; Stay on the path and you’ll reap the rewards. Add an original twist and – in today’s deeply conservative times – you won’t get a look-in. ‘The Girl on the Train’ will be a big hit movie. ‘The Gift’ flopped.