Stephen Miller

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

Review: Sicario

2015 has had its fair share of great movies, and hindsight may prove me wrong. But so far, this is shaping up to be the year of the Big, Promising, Competently Made Disappointment. Be it blockbuster (Age of Ultron,) indie (Z for Zachariah,) comedy (the bizarrely-still-in-theatres Trainwreck,) or awards-baiting-biopic (Pawn Sacrifice [review forthcoming],) buzzed-about releases which I had every intention of loving have consistently come in just a notch above “fine.”

I had every intention of loving Sicario, and boy did its first hour or so reciprocate. From the chilling prologue to the perfect Juarez sequence, the first half of the film is a masterclass in claustrophobic mood-building. Villeneuve knows the precise composition of dread: sharp crescendos of grizzly violence convince us that anything could happen, deep swells of bureaucratic procedural remind us that no one will care. It’s not a fear of death, so much as numb routine — that unremarkable whizz of a bullet, slump of a body, scratch of a pencil on some government form. “Illegal.”

If all that sounds timely and political, don’t you worry: the remainder of the film is firmly committed to saying nothing. No ends to connect, no arc for any characters to go on, no plausible motivations or logical narrative. Even the mood — that one thing the film so masterfully manipulated — follows no meaningful trajectory as the body count joylessly increases. I’m fine with uncertainty — Inherent Vice and its law-bending Brolin didn’t make a lick of sense either, and I loved it. But there’s a difference between haziness and laziness. This one felt like no one knew what was going on, and “that’s a metaphor for the drug war” doesn’t carry convincing weight. Like Fury, it takes an action-riddled turn which only serves to muddy the damnation of the first act; only this time, it’s not even ostensibly fun. Emily Blunt’s Macer, the clear audience surrogate, tells us exactly how we should feel by the end of the film: a vague hodgepodge of negative emotions, filled with holy indignance but unable to clearly state why.

The initial chill of Juarez propelled me through the lesser half of the movie, and lingered even as the credits rolled. Weak script aside, I was genuinely shaken. But with a subject this heavy, is “shaken” really the litmus test? Crossing lines is easy. The border between mood-building and sadism — between calls to arms and empty protest — is a point.

Review: Z for Zachariah

March, 2015. The festival circuit has just ended, national premier is a few months away, and director Craig Zobel is slouched in a La-Z-Boy nursing a well-deserved beer. It’s been a wild, wild ride. He flips on Fox to catch that new Will Forte comedy everyone’s been raving about. Thirty minutes pass in silence.

“I’ve made a huge mistake.”

If I could describe Z for Zachariah with one word, it would be “odd.” Not in content, but in the fact that it exists at all. It’s an odd convergence of mismatched ideas, things which sound great individually but never really add up. Nuclear war has ravaged the earth, and Ann and Mr. Loomis believe themselves to be the only survivors. She clings to her faith, he clings to his science (why are those pronouns almost never reversed? Thank God / Science for Contact), but both know they have to rebuild. Forced together despite few commonalities, theirs is a tense union — and we have every reason to expect something will snap. Then hunky, Southern good ol’ boy Caleb wanders in from the Nicholas Sparks shoot next door.

Hold up. What was this movie supposed to be about?! You bring up themes of faith vs science, of romance vs cold patriarchal duty, of gnawing racial tensions; you present me with this murky relationship that promises to deepen into something terrifying or beautiful — and now after a half hour of lip-service, you jettison it all for a love triangle? And an imbalanced love triangle at that: we know virtually nothing about Caleb, except that the good Lord blessed him with rugged good looks, baby blues, and fortitude against radiation. It’s a truly bizarre twist, and one that the film created from scratch: even the book, targeted at ADHD-addled young adults, was content with two characters. That The Last Man On Earth mined so many laughs from such similar territory, only makes its lack of a payoff more pronounced.

Normally I’d be forgiving of missteps like this. It’s a small film, it took a risk, and it didn’t work. But like Interstellar, Zachariah unfolds with a sort of self-serious grandeur that practically begs me to nitpick. That ultra-brooding slowburn, those indulgent shots of nature, banal platitudes lobbed with the gravitas of Scripture — everything cries “Trust me, I’m an artist and I’m about to blow your mind.” After 80 minutes of failing to blow my mind, it busts out a shot-by-shot homage to Tarkovsky’s Stalker… and it’s probably the most affecting of the movie. Like Kubrick to Nolan, though, the nod feels less loving than delusional.

Excellent acting and solid ambience keep this from being a bust. But those can only take you so far. At some point, all that mood building needs to actually build something

Review: Queen of Earth

Alternate title: Black Swan-berg-man?

Alex Ross Perry garners an awkward sort of critical acclaim — the kind that sounds like a coded warning. I’ve learned the euphemisms for similar filmmakers: “acidic wit” = overscripted; “biting comedy” = zero laughs; “like X meets Y” = intellectual masturbation. Like Infinite Jest meets Ulysses, even glowing praise comes across as a sort of backhanded humblebrag. “He’s the literary voice of our generation — oh, and 99% of you won’t finish the book.”

I’m not sure how many pleasant surprises it will take for me to forget Greenberg and learn to trust again. Because what blew me away about Queen of Earth was its sheer immediacy. Absent is the preciousness that made my love of Listen Up Philip come with a disclaimer; if there’s winking irreverence or “comedy” to be had here, it went miles above my lowbrow head. I saw something earnest and visceral, and it stuck.

Queen of Earth is a gnawing psychological thriller about depression and the perils of ego, helmed by some of the best performances of the year. Elisabeth Moss steals the show as mentally-unraveling Catherine-with-a-C, but Katherine-with-a-K Waterston is possibly more heartbreaking in her portrayal of Virginia. There’s a constant struggle between empathy and resentment in her, a tug-of-war between tough love and “tough luck.” When does a frostbitten relationship turn gangrene? When do you give up on warmth and pick up the scalpel?

Catherine’s depression could have been played as grating; here, it simply terrifies. It never needs to do anything terrifying, it only needs to be the right amount of off: this off-kilter word choice, that offbeat smile. The eerie soundtrack and 16mm look only heighten the unease. Loose-scripted naturalism giving way to tight, romantic chaos, like Aronofsky directing a Joe Swanberg movie. It’s haunting because it breaks the rules.

In one memorable scene, the friends trade tales of heartbreak in long, unbroken monologues. Typically this would be an intimate moment, all eyes on the speaker. Instead, the camera lingers on the listener; the wide-eyed stare of a mind to busy rehearsing its response to actually hear you. It’s not a flattering look. Both women feel smothered and, paradoxically, neglected. That’s the trouble with other people’s stories: you’re never the protagonist.

Review: Meru

The Shark Fin at Meru isn’t the tallest peak in the world. It isn’t even in the top five, unless years of Jeopardy have totally failed me. And, at least from an outside perspective, it isn’t the most beautiful or obviously daunting — hell, the peak in question is the shortest of three. What it is is technically difficult, extremely dangerous, and as of five years ago, unclimbed. Watching the trailer for this documentary, I couldn’t shake the question: why would anyone risk his life for the (literally) Sisyphean challenge of going up and down a mountain? Why throw yourself at the solution when the problem is only meaningful by virtue of being hard? Why climb this?

I doubt a satisfying answer exists, and Meru certainly doesn’t offer one. Instead, it answers a related question: what sort of person would climb this? Or maybe, what does it look like to need this? While the film was billed as an epic quest, where it really thrives is as an intimate character study. You get to know Conrad, Jimmy, and Renan in the same way they might have met each other: on the mountain. Like any friendship, at first it’s all about a shared goal. They’re staring at route maps, muttering jargon you don’t quite understand; you might learn something in passing, but the peak is the point. Then it moves to shared experience: it’s been raining for days, prospects look bleak, and you’re cooped up in a tiny portaledge, commiserating. Bonding via immersion, even when no one says a thing. The camera is everything here, and it’s amazing how much exhilaration — and bored claustrophobia — it manages to express. Like always, though, things eventually get personal. Conrad opens up about love and loss, Jimmy and Renan share perspective-defining moments. They look you in the eye and try to tell you what it all means. And even if they can’t quite verbalize it, you start to feel a whiff of it too. You can’t put your finger on why; all you know is you want to share in that moment at the top, to see the world from their (irrational?) point of view.

Say what you will, but that view is really something.

Review: No Escape

An unnamed bodyguard brings a clear cocktail to a politician dressed in wildly generic Asian robes. “We have a saying in my country,” the generic politician utters with a generic bow, “the dragon of fortune has a very long tail.”

From the get go, it’s clear that No Escape has zero interest in realism or specificity. In fact, it avoids both like the plague: where the film could have easily name-dropped its location (Cambodia with a dash of Myanmar?) it instead opts for the hilariously vague. Owen Wilson’s “contracting gig” has moved him to a “fourth world country” some 14 hours away from good-ol’ Texas. “Welcome to Asia” chuckles Pierce Brosnan’s generically British douchebag, “You’re gonna love it here.” Considering just how blatantly racist any alternative would play, that goofy Kingsman-style ambiguity makes sense. When not driving terribly, failing to hold their liquor, or performing cheekily-euphemised sex work, citizens of [UNSTABLE ASIAN COUNTRY] mainly enjoy donning bandanas and brutally murdering white people. The same xenophobic fear that Argo masterfully manipulated, here gets the San Andreas treatment: you’re an alien in a strange land, the people there don’t quite like you, and, oh, also look out for that tank.

So okay, it’s pretty damn stupid. Accepting all that, and taking off any remotely socially-conscious hat, what’s left? A mostly-thrilling collection of chase scenes and checkpoints, with just enough intensity to keep it going. Remember that scene in the trailer, where Wilson throws his daughter off a roof in slow motion? That’s not even the third most ridiculous shot in this movie — hell, it’s not even the most ridiculous daughter-being-thrown-off-a-roof shot in this movie. No Escape’s stakes might be vague, but they’re absurdly high and stretched to the breaking point. So, in accordance with blockbuster tradition, the movie only really loses its steam when it tries to pause and reflect, to glean a “message” from the scorched earth where no good message can grow. Maybe that’s why the eventual ending feels so awkward and lackluster: when the bullets stop flying and an actual country gets involved, there’s literally nothing left to say.

Review: Mistress America

Somewhere around the halfway mark of Mistress America, college freshman Tracy offers notes on her friend’s writing style. [Paraphrased:] “You write about people who are so free and fun. But it’s obvious that you aren’t one of those people, and that’s awkward.”

I’m a pretty enthusiastic Noah Baumbach fan, but if ever there were an apt description of his weakness, Tracy’s might be it. I only truly believe his dialogue when it’s spoken by navel-gazing intellectuals — unhappy, uncomfortable, male. His recent Muse, Greta Gerwig, plays none of those things; the Annie to Baumbach’s Alvy, her characters are energetic, free-spirited, and disarmingly at ease. They’re everything Jesse Eisenberg isn’t. So if Squid and the Whale was an exercise in brutal realism, the overwhelming vibe of Frances Ha was wistful rhapsody, an ode to some unattainable, romantic ideal. Frances talks like nobody actually talks. And we don’t necessarily identify with her, so much as we want to be rescued by her.

In Mistress America, everyone talks the way nobody talks, and it’s clear they can’t rescue a thing. Tracy is an English major struggling to find her feet, lost in a world without a manual. Her older “sister” Brooke is a Platonic Ideal of Manic Pixie Womanhood: she lives in Times Square, sings with the Dirty Projectors, teaches aerobics and tutors algebra and but also is trying to open a restaurant. As Brooke proudly imparts wisdom to Tracy, the dialogue is literally unbelievable — a mess of non sequitors and too-“witty” retorts, interjections so clean you can practically hear the em dashes. Pure, theatrical screwball.

As the film progresses, that “screwball” dial gets cranked to a hilarious 11. Characters consult psychics. An aristocrat gives a performative monologue and fashions an apple bong. Eventually it culminates in an ensemble-bursting argument which feels less like a movie than a zany high school play: if a Duchess had marched in shouting about blintzes, no one would bat an eye. The nature of the massive argument? Tracy has co-opted Brooke’s life for a character in one of her stories. The problem? It’s a one-dimensional caricature. It paints women as shallow and irresponsible. It condescends, even if it means to rhapsodize. Tennessee Williams’ plays were inspired by real people too, but Brooke “isn’t friends with fucking Tennessee Williams.”

She’s not. But I can think of at least one director she is close with, and a film that feels a helluvalot like a play. And while all the mayhem adds up to more of a wink than a thesis, it’s surprisingly fun to watch her caricature explode.

(For more thoughts on Noah Baumbach, see my review of While We’re Young)

Review: The Look of Silence

When The Act Of Killing came out, it absolutely ruined me, to the point where I refused to rank or critique it as film. I couldn’t separate its cinematic merits from the devastating truths it revealed. This wasn’t a movie, it was something deeper.

Somewhere in the last year, though, I’ve begun to see this distinction as bullshit. Every film is trying to communicate some truth, and “technical merit” is valuable only insofar as it aids communication. In my review of Selma, I wrote that “exposing tragic truths isn’t a narrative cop-out; communal grief and redemption aren’t cheap tricks.” The Act of Killing does exactly what any great film should aspire to do — it holds a mirror up to humanity. And it does so masterfully. Our vantage point is Joshua’s, a blank canvas upon whom Anwar Congo can project whatever self-image he wants. The damningly revealing (and formally thrilling) result, was that Anwar’s freedom eventually led to his own condemnation; the act of telling shifted his story from “Hero” to “Mobster” to “Monster.” Evil collapses under its own weight.

The Look of Silence continues in the same vein. Only this time, it does more than hold a mirror. It points a finger. Rather than see through the eyes of an impartial mediator, we see others as Adi sees them — the man who murdered his brother, the official who reaped the profits, the uncle who guarded his cell. Unlike Congo, they are not given the luxury of six years of self-reflection. Here is the face of a victim, confronting your sins. How will you respond?

At first blush, this struck me as less inventive — “gotchya” journalism has been around for decades, and the revelation is typically the same: people under pressure are defensive, self-absolving liars. For the most part, that is true of Adi’s interview subjects. I’m not sure how they truly feel, how evil truly looks deep down. It will take years for their defenses to crumble; the camera only has ten minutes.

But the brilliance of Silence is that it isn’t about Evil at all: it’s about Adi, his family, and us. Adi’s quest for reconciliation, and the particular questions he chooses to ask, are revelatory. With such noble resolve, it’s heartbreaking to see what breaks his silence: not the description of horrific murders, but minor details that you or I might gloss over. Whether the Communists indeed “had no religion”, whether they were sexually promiscuous or faithful. Death is too enormous to be undone, but the moral character of his brother — that, Adi can honor. He may not inspire remorse in the culprits themselves, but in their daughters and wives, he can at least find shared humanity. “I’m sure your brother was a good man.” No explicit remorse, no Original-Sin-style guilt required. Just acknowledgement.

Adi’s family does not want to reconcile: justice on earth is hopeless, let God punish the damned. In this sense, their coping mechanism isn’t too far removed from that of the guilty parties. “Let God be the judge”, “I was only doing my duty”, and “Let’s not argue about politics” are vastly different causes for the same effect: inertia. Silence — whether borne of apathy, denial, or despair — cannot enact change.

Which is where we come in. If you’re like me, there are times when you’ll feel conflicted watching The Look of Silence. You’re not entirely sure what is meant to be gained from these conversations, and as you watch an 80-year-old woman beg Joshua not to confront her with her husband’s sins, your gut reaction may be to agree. She is, after all, a terribly tragic figure: one wonders how many years of pain lie behind that protective callous, what trauma that unnerving laughter (shared among nearly all women in this documentary) betrays. I felt a little voyeuristic, to be honest. With her, with the near-senile death squad leader, with the man on the poster who doesn’t want to “talk politics”: yes, they’re wrong, but why force discomfort? Why not let them die in numb denial?

“Why” is the thesis of the film. My absurd aversion to conflict in all things; my desire to write off not just this woman’s ignorance, but that of my own friends and relatives as some unalienable right; our collective instinct to be impartial third parties, “aware” and “supportive” in the abstract over drinks but never daring to be seen among the marchers — it isn’t enough. In The Act of Killing Oppenheimer used silence as a tool to let Evil speak. The Look of Silence tells us that listening was the easy part. How will we now respond?

Review: Straight Outta Compton

Grateful for what this film was, disappointed in what it shied away from.

Straight Outta Compton is extraordinarily timely in its treatment of brutality, fearmongering, and the importance of passionate expression. For anyone who has posted one of those godawful memes about the “irony” of violent protests in response to recent racial profiling scandals, this should be absolutely mandatory viewing. Not because it makes its protagonists out to be angelic social justice warriors, but because it allows us to be vaguely uncomfortable with their methods while still convincing us to cheer for their cause. To err on the side of the oppressed, and to ask where anger comes from rather than criticize it from our smug vantage points. NWA were a product of their times; a visceral shout from a community that desperately needed a voice. F. Gary Gray puts us there in the thick of it: the gangs, the dope houses and militant raids, the feeling of being entirely abandoned by society.

In my white, middle class upbringing, I’ve never felt abandoned by anyone. No authority figure, police or otherwise, has been anything but kind to me — if a friend of similar class and privilege shouted “fuck the police”, I’d say “well, it’s more nuanced than that” or some similar wet-blanket sentiment. But in 1989 Detroit, amidst a sea of middle fingers, Gray gave me a glimpse of how that chorus might feel to someone living it. And it feels incredibly gratifying. It does what art is supposed to do: it transports.

Unfortunately, West Coast gangsta rap often traded one form of oppression for another, and NWA et al were no exception. While the film trusts us to put violent bravado in its proper context, it seems desperate to minimize the rampant misogyny. Oh, it’s there occasionally — orgiastic pool parties, a “Bye Felicia” origin story, dutifully acknowledging a side of hip hop culture that Gray knows the audience won’t totally side with. But it only gives us obligatory scraps of admission, which almost feels worse than outright denial. Absent is any toll it takes on the women around them, whose three varietals (slutty groupie, saintly mother, strong-willed wife) might as well be different species. I felt a bit of unease watching parade after parade of topless women worshipping our protagonists — not because they shouldn’t have shown it, but because they could have shown so much more alongside it. We see Politically Correct Uproar and we see blanket approval, but we never see the (I assume massive) conflicted middle.

That lack of trust in the audience was most evident in the broad strokes it used to paint its characters. Suge Knight is a bad dude and bad dudes do bad things, period. Eazy is given the most flaws of the group, but only to preface a Prodigal Son redemption. Ice Cube, the obvious pro-First-Amendment warrior, voices all of the aggression and violent rhetoric — he’s earned it, it’s safe with him. But save the too-entertaining-to-be-offensive “No Vaseline”, we rarely get vulgarity (or even basic anger) without clear “socially conscious” overtones. You’d almost think they were Public Enemy.

Dre? He’s a saint in a DJ booth, perennially above it all, urging his friends to cut the gangster shit and think about the art. He’s seen in concert, he’s seen spitballing with Snoop, he’s seen on billboards as a multi-platinum artist, but he’s rarely seen participating in any of those things that made him famous. Dre, whose verses (ghostwritten or not) with NWA (“One Less Bitch”) and collaborations with Snoop (“Bitches Ain’t Shit”, “Ain’t No Fun”) were perhaps the most vile and damning of the lot, who helped shift the focus from the hyperbolically-violent sexism of the era to the women-are-flesh-bots-and-isn’t-that-awesome sexism that still echoes in hip hop today, irony-free. I’m not saying they had to show him assaulting Dee Barnes or getting a lecture from Oprah about respecting women, but to have him just sit there as a sort of pre-Apple-Exec Christ figure? For a movie with plenty of grit, it felt oddly spineless.

Straight Outta Compton, like the album that inspired it, puts a well-needed spotlight on a particular time and place, and for that I am very glad it exists. And like the album, there’s a good deal of baggage that comes with that endorsement — but who knew, 25 years later, the problem would be that it’s too tame?

Review: The End of the Tour

“Jason Segel to Play David Foster Wallace in James Ponsoldt’s The End of the Tour.” The headline stuck me as absurd when I read it. James Ponsoldt, chronicler of sweet high school romance and alcoholism. David Foster Wallace, virtuoso author, architect of tangled prose about ununtanglable feelings, patron saint of “Not yet, but it’s next on my reading list.” Jason Segel, perennial schlubby best friend, a sort of stoner Kramer who dances with muppets and showed his penis in that one thing.

Don’t get me wrong. Separately, I have a lot of love for each of these people. That’s actually the problem: I knew them already. From Freaks and Geeks to the last season of HIMYM, I’ve spent years accidentally bumping into Segel. Ponsoldt’s last two films both hold a special place in my heart. And despite an avalanche of pretension headed my way for saying this, Wallace is absolutely my favorite author: not just Infinite Jest, but short fiction anthologies, Harper’s travelogs, a bizarre primer on number theory, and the very interview this film is based on. I wanted it to be good, I did. But mostly I dreaded it with a sort of preemptive, vicarious embarrassment. What if it’s just Marshall Erickson in a doo rag?

In hindsight, I’m not sure why I was so skeptical. Because if there’s one thing all three artists share, it’s a respect for the sincerely-felt mundane. In his now-famous commencement speech, DFW extolled the virtue of the obvious, of the “myriad unsexy” sacrifices that comprise true freedom. His characters struggle with loneliness in privilege, fraudulence in success, addiction, depression, the overwhelming pressure of talent or beauty. Whether found on a luxury cruise or porn convention, “First World Problems” were simply human problems.

James Ponsoldt has plenty of respect for human problems. The best scene from Smashed may as well be narrated by Don Gately: Mary Elizabeth Winstead in her first AA meeting, feeling self-conscious about her lack of a Real Problem, fumbling to explain that Fun just isn’t so fun anymore. The Spectacular Now elevated high school interactions into something powerful, profound — Sutter’s relationship may be a doomed nostalgic blip, but his loneliness strikes us as real and adult. The strength of The End Of The Tour is that it doesn’t try to mold Wallace and Lipsky into tragic figures or cute sentiments; it just asks us to sit and listen. On a groggy freeway at sunrise, cold coffee in tow, talking deeply about life as blinding light hits the windshield. We’ve probably all had a drive like that, where begrudging smalltalk snowballed into something sprawling and personal — the silly philosophical argument that felt so profound in the moment, the moments of silent communion that feel more profound in retrospect. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this particular brand of intimacy happens side-by-side rather than face-to-face. It’s not about mining for conclusions or peeling back each other’s masks, it’s about living life together, eyes on the road.

Jason Segel’s characters are obsessed with sharing life’s tiny pleasures. This John Bonham solo, that one cheeseburger he swears exists, a puppet rock opera about Dracula — he may be a lawyer or world star chef, but trust him, you have got to get in on this Gouda. As Wallace, he’s a believable contradiction: hyper-verbose artist, lover of Alanis Morissette and Pop Tarts, ex narcotics user whose deepest addiction is television. The everyman persona feels deliberate without ever feeling affected, and that’s a crucial distinction. He knows the Mall of America is gaudy (and Marshall probably doesn’t believe in ghosts), but better to aim at excitement than settle for hip discontent. Relentlessly self-aware, yes, but with a genuine root. Funny enough, the very reason I couldn’t imagine Segel in this role might be what made him so perfect for it. A comedian who traditionally writes his own dialogue, forced to mimic an icon verbatim — isn’t that what fame feels like?

If you can’t tell by now, I’ve been really struggling to make this review cohere. There are too many directions I’d like to take it. I want to tell you about the film’s similarities to the Before series, about how self-aware pretension is so endearing to me. Or about My Dinner With Andre, and that gratifying “Cut the bullshit, you’re a fraud and I’m lonely” moment both films share. Or about the bizarre feeling of watching a movie whose script I’ve essentially already read performed by actors I can’t unrecognize, or the distinct way James Ponsoldt uses light to make it feel like you’ve lived somewhere all your life, or how Good Old Neon would make for a great companion piece if you imagine Lipsky reading a yearbook, or how Jesse Eisenberg is so good at playing an asshole in movies it makes me subconsciously dislike him in real life. And in this sprawling conversation where I’m straining to sound so goddamned insightful, I still haven’t mentioned if I liked the movie.

I really did. I hope you will too. We talk about it more on this week’s podcast.

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.