The Gift: Is the 2015 Thriller Movie Inspired by True Events?

Writing, directing, and starring in ‘The Gift,’ Joel Edgerton weaves an unsettling tale of revenge, regrets, and the consequences of past actions. The film follows the seemingly idyllic life of Simon and Robyn, a married couple who run into Simon’s high school classmate, Gordo. As Gordo re-enters their lives and showers them with unexpected gifts, tensions escalate, and the couple begins to feel uneasy about Simon’s intentions.

As the truth about the characters’ pasts slowly comes to light, the couple’s relationship is put to the test, and they are forced to confront their deepest fears and regrets. With its expertly crafted suspense and thought-provoking narrative, some may find themselves digging deeper into the film’s real-life inspirations.

The Gift Is Inspired by Thriller Classics and Personal Experiences

‘The Gift’ originated from Joel Edgerton wanting to play the challenging role of a creepy character disrupting the peaceful lives of a couple. He was influenced by his personal experiences of bullying in high school while, and took inspiration from jarring thrillers like ‘Fatal Attraction,’ ‘Cape Fear,’ ‘Caché,’ ‘Funny Games,’ ‘Pacific Heights,’ ‘Body Heat,’ and ‘The Shining.’ Originally conceived as a vehicle for Edgerton’s acting, the script evolved into a directorial opportunity as he immersed himself in crafting a layered narrative.

“Basically, the germ of the idea was that I thought how potentially terrifying it was to be like 20 years out from high school and have that tap on the shoulder from someone who said, ‘Do you remember me? We went to high school together,’” explained Edgerton in an interview. Central to the plot is the ambiguous history between Simon and Gordon, exploring themes of bullying and the enduring impact of past actions. Edgerton’s decision to deviate from the bully archetype of the brutish jock, instead opting for Simon to be defined by verbal rather than physical aggression, adds another layer of complexity to the narrative.

Edgerton’s personal experiences with bullying infuse the story, although he maintains the film is not solely about anti-bullying but rather delves into darker territories of human nature and forgiveness. “I’m sure I was mean to other kids and I was also, I wouldn’t say bullied, but I had moments of feeling physically scared and terrorized by other kids.” said Edgerton in an interview, “The idea that things said about us shouldn’t hurt us? That doesn’t really make sense to me. Unfortunately the things we say about each other hold weight and they have a residue.”

While ‘The Gift’ may not align with any true incidents, there have been many real-life instances of childhood bullying and trauma coming back to haunt those involved in it. Some of these were cited in the film and are indeed true events. In 1987 South Korea, Kim took his former teacher’s life for accusing him of cheating 21 years prior. In 2012, South Dakota bore witness to a shocking act of violence when Carl Ericsson, driven by a decades-old grudge, fatally shot Norman Johnson. The incident’s origins can be traced back to their high school days, where Johnson, a sports star, pulled a jockstrap over Ericsson’s head during a prank.

During a simple face-lift surgery, Sandra Joyner’s death was initially deemed accidental. However, further investigation revealed that nurse Sally Jordan Hill had administered a fatal overdose intentionally. Hill held a 30-year grudge against Joyner, who had stolen her high school boyfriend. A South Dakota man, Carl Ericsson, fatally shot his former classmate, Norman Johnson, for having embarrassed him in high school. The shooting took place when Carl Ericsson was 73, more than 50 years after the high school incident.

Blurring the gap between fiction and reality, the film’s marketing campaign employed a truly unique approach. Many film critics and writers received personalized gifts from a mysterious stranger signing himself off as Gordo. The recipients’ social media was stalked by a newly created account of Gordo, as he seemingly looked into their histories to curate gifts for them. A writer for Fast Company received a custom version of a vanity license plate he had previously joked about on Twitter, while a writer from The Verge was sent Polaroid-style prints of their personal photos shared on Instagram.

The marketing stunts bordered on actual stalking and certainly created a very real sense of shock, forcing us to look back at our pasts and evaluate if someone like Gordo could emerge in our lives. Drawing from a plethora of thriller classics, including ‘Single White Female,’ ‘Rosemary’s Baby,’ and ‘The Shining,’ Edgerton pays homage while injecting fresh perspectives into the genre. More than halfway through the film, there is a hospital scene with the couple in room 237. The room number served as a slight tip of the hat towards ‘The Shining’ and its infamous room at the Overlook Hotel.

‘The Gift’ stands as a testament to Edgerton’s mastery at weaving a suspenseful narrative, one that comes incredibly close to reality with its layered characters and parallels with real-world incidents. Ultimately, the film is not a true story, with the filmmaker drawing from his personal experiences of being on both ends of bullying at a young age and creating a riveting tale that builds up on classic thrillers in the genre.

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