The Giver -- a Film Review
The “haunting” story of The Giver hails from what librarians classify as the young readers section, a celebrated 1994 book by Lois Lowry, and feels like it. A bland inversion of The Truman Show where pretty much everyone -- save Meryl Streep, playing a Big Sister, husky-voiced Elder to no great effect, and Jeff Bridges, as the society’s keeper of memories, the “Giver” -- lives a uniform, unruffled, nearly pathologically colorless life. Sameness is the order of the day.
The set design and scheme of the Phillip Noyce (Patriot Games, 1992; Clear and Present Danger, 1994; Rabbit-Proof Fence, 2002; Salt 2010) film is stripped of vibrant color and ‘edge’ for its depressed-affect population until handsome teen Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), under the tutelage of The Giver’s (Jeff Bridges, hoarier than usual) transferred societal memories, emerges into the light of self-awareness. He also, by virtue of these tactile transfers, gains first-time emotion, a broad-spectrum color palette and drug-free, now anxiety- and strife-invested life. At that point, plink, he becomes an ardent, pained explorer for that unknown thing called love. As hinted at in the constricted narrative and orbit of the tale, his mission supercedes that of assigned memory keeper, but one of trying to open the eyes of those around him.
There are endless ways this premise and its neat all-Caucasian, Orwellian premise fail. People in unisex clothing attach to “family units,” artificially deposited children such as Jonas and his perky sister, and parents paired for convenience, such as Jonas’ mother, Katie Holmes, bleached of emotion, and a robotic father, played by Alexander Skarsgard. Strong emotion is discouraged by daily doses of some unnamed pharmaceutical dispensed via a ubiquitous “Reset” button in every unit. Conversation is peppered with cautionary reminders not to be too expressive or excessive: “Precise language, please!” Katie Holmes chides her rambunctious progeny.
Probably the strongest emotion we felt, aside from discomfort and eruptions of ridicule, was admiration for Ms. Holmes at having cunningly escaped the confining hamstrung life of marriage under Scientology, as the third wife of the cult’s most renowned devotee.
The adults are automaton-like, yet the teenaged kids we focus on at the start have normal teasing and high-spirited exchanges, flirtations that are more yearn than learn or spurn, and occasional naughty references that could not exist in the overall picture if the compacted societal rules would be universally observed. Every home is identical. The gardens and walkways are immaculate, featureless, drained of distinction.
There is no weather, since that has been eliminated as a cause of strife and uncertainty of outcome. We became uncomfortable at the unsubtle nudges about pet notions of the Left: Climate change and its endless bad results. How the government knows best for us. Mind your mouth, and forget freedom of choice, direction, entertainment. People have babies somewhere, but apparently separate from actual love or passion. Babies are raised all-but-hydroponically, in vast nurseries.
If an infant, even one only a few months old, fails to conform immediately, it is “sent away.” Aside from Jeff Bridges, no one in the society is grizzled, but for some occasional panel of Elders who decide whom to “release to Elsewhere” or whom to discipline. They have zero personality.
We became increasingly restive as the fable proceeded to show the Chosen, Jonas, reject all the shackles of his life, once he gains insight into joy, pain, fear and war. We thought it ridiculous as “memories” consisted of sledding, or swimming, or praying to alien deities, shown in fast, stereotyped montages that to us were insulting and abusive of actual human history. One does not have the right to molest sensitive images of real history for the dumb wallpaper of this fatuous film.
Many conceits in this freighted film are frankly cringeworthy: As Jonas escapes with his infant brother, he traverses forests, snowy wastes, deserts, and other extremes, all on foot, without any visible food or water, and sans special clothing for him or his tiny brother. We bounce back and forth between fable we half-swallow, to real-life considerations of absurdity -- how do the two not die of exposure? How do they not starve to death? The cliff edges of the manicured world are ridiculously close, yet no one ventures beyond the cheery clouds permanently shrouding the rest of the unmanipulated world, discouraging investigation or penetration. No one even has a last name -- which would seem to indicate a biblical paucity of inhabitants. There are no physical challenges, other ‘ethnicities’ or cultures evident, no people with illnesses or deformities, special-needs people. (Oh, right: Such nonconforming people would be smilingly “released” in this halcyon fake-opia.)
As in some controlled societies today, ceremonies invest the populace with their assigned jobs, and no one is supposed to cavil. The premise is dopey, less sophisticated than in a similarly dystopic speculative fiction by Margaret Atwood and film, The Handmaid’s Tale (1985; film, 1990), but without the layers of nuance and important literary subtext.
Giver centers on Jonas, who looks like a younger version of Josh Hartnett, though less piquant, a youth who lives in a seemingly ideal, if colorless, world of conformity and contentment. As he begins to imbibe memories with The Giver, the sole keeper of all the community's backstory or whatever, Jonas quickly begins to uncover the dark and unlovely truths of the Stepfordish community's supposedly shrouded past. With this newfound power of knowledge, he realizes that the stakes are higher than imagined. He feels the stirrings of… whoa… sex and love. A kiss caught on a surveillance camera, one of the surfeit of drone monitors, captures Jonas and love interest, Fiona, played by Odeya Rush, kissing. Those watchingon screens are perplexed: What are they doing? they quiz each other.
Are we to understand that in this ‘idyllic’ landscape, sex is so far in the past that people don’t even recognize first base?
Come on. Really?
The problem, from an award point of view, is that flattened affect in a society such as that depicted here means that the actors don’t have much to do but emulate massive Botox injections to the body and face. The “memories” Jonas drinks in are clips from battles, political meets, rebellions and resistance to tyranny -- but they are flashes. There is no literature or art or architecture or gardening or philosophy or great food or sports anywhere in these collective memories.
There’s no grit, nothing to hold onto. Meryl Streep hits one note throughout—not her fault, of course. Skarsgard is a total nullity. Katie Holmes is also wasted. Worse, Jeff Bridges as The Giver of knowledge and past appears to speak from the front of his mouth, rather than from back in his throat and diaphragm. He speaks with marbles or cotton wadding, too -- he does not have a believable delivery, though he looks right for the part. Taylor Swift appears for seconds, and is unrecognizable as the forerunner of Jonas, a “failed” receiver of memories. Even Jonas, handsome and earnest -- an Aussie in real life, like the director -- fails to manifest anything beyond an occasional moue of distress or pangs of love for his chum, Fiona, an attractive but undemonstrative Odeya Rush.
To call the ideas explored here superficial is to award it a prize of depth. It is approaching not absolute zero, but absolute tosh. We were not surprised to hear a few well-placed chortles at supposedly Important Moments from the audience, but surprised there were not more uncontrollable giggles at the stuff being shown. Yes, the points being made are that drugs are compressing reality, that we are an overmedicated, bellicose society that ought to be more mindful of the residuum of government largesse and removal of pesky pains and accompanying torments; that we willingly submit to too much massaging of life’s flintier aspects.
Though many Conservatives are giving this a thumbs-up, insisting it promotes solid values and resistance to nodding to whatever is handed out by presiding powers, to us Giver is glop for a distraction-starved viewer, not adults with BS detectors well installed and cynicism receptors long imbedded in our DNA.
Maybe it’s a black-and-white parable for the end-product of the liberal/progressive agenda. We just found it annoying, illogical, unscientific and… adolescent.
The Giver -- taketh.