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'The Giver' review: to live is to suffer

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Dystopia without cruelty (but with Taylor Swift)

The Weinstein Company

Like most public-schooled American children, reading The Giver was a rite of passage for me. Long before I read adult classics like Brave New World, Anthem, and 1984, The Giver let me explore what it would be like to live in a world without individuality or history, where people suppressed happiness and despair alike in the name of keeping the human race going. It focused on a young boy’s slow journey towards realizing the power of emotions, after being chosen to replace the aging man responsible for holding an entire world’s worth of memories.

I loved The Giver as a kid, but I hadn’t given it much thought until I saw director Philip Noyce’s film adaptation. Aimed at a moderately young audience, it’s going to inevitably be compared to fellow post-apocalyptic young adult films like The Hunger Games and Divergent, and Jeff Bridges — who plays the titular Giver and has been working for 20 years to get the film made — admits that the success of those franchises helped his project along. But no matter how often it falters, it’s trying to be a fundamentally different kind of fiction: not a teen action movie but a spare, impressionistic allegory. And despite being frequently heavy-handed, it’s actually captured a dystopia that’s genuinely morally ambiguous.

'The Giver' gets away with a fair bit of weirdness

For a major studio film that’s been slogging towards release for decades, The Giver gets away with a fair bit of weirdness, starting with the setting itself: a perfectly level, grass-covered plateau surrounded by a sea of fluffy white clouds. If there’s ever a revival of anti-realist German Expressionism based around computer graphics, The Giver is going to be cited as a prototypical example. On the plateau live the remains of a civilization whose leaders have attempted to rebuild after a terrible disaster by instituting a policy of total sameness. Children are assigned at birth to arranged family units, where physical contact is discouraged and daily drug injections suppress all feelings of love, desire, anger, or sadness. On the day that all teenagers are assigned their community-approved jobs, protagonist Jonas (Brenton Thwaites of Maleficent) is assigned to be the Receiver of Memories, who has the experiences of everything from war to weddings to sledding — anything that might provoke strong emotions — passed down psychically through his predecessor. Does his growing awareness of how much has been suppressed lead him to rebel against the community, attempting to bring emotion back to its citizens? Come on. Of course it does.

The Giver’s weaknesses are softened by how well Noyce’s direction manages to capture the novel’s dream logic visually. At its best, it feels like something out of The Twilight Zone — a high-production archetypal stage play. The filmmakers effectively get across a sense of manicured, disposable homogeneity, a kind of cheap flatness that pervades everything from the blocky houses to the monochromatic bicycles, their spokes replaced with solid white discs. Even the outdoor scenes feel like they take place in some bare, grassy amphitheater, on a set that doesn’t have quite enough stage dressing.

At his best, Phillip Noyce captures the novel's dream logic

The Twilight Zone feel is bolstered by the film’s slow shift from black and white to color. As in the book, Jonas is one of the only people in his world who can see colors, and even he is barely aware of them until he begins to get training from the Giver. The transition happens too quickly, for the simple reason that the black-and-white world is usually more compelling than the color one, but when it works, it’s great. Likewise, The Giver’s characters are a bunch of archetypes: the questioning young protagonist, the love interest whose humanity he awakens, the goofball friend whose irreverence swiftly jells into conformity. The cast is able, but the real star is whoever is behind the makeup and costume design, which manages to make a group of extraordinarily beautiful people look bland and dough-faced, neither pretty nor ugly.

The Giver still

Unfortunately, although Bridges absolutely looks the part of the Giver, he can’t quite pull off the part. The moment he opened his mouth, I started sifting through my memories of his recent movies, because I was convinced that he’d played the exact same "crotchety mentor" role several times before. IMDb hasn’t backed me up on this, but it doesn’t really matter. In a movie that’s all about types and symbols, he’s so far into cliche territory that it becomes distracting, even when he gets to step out of his fatherly role and work against the excellent Meryl Streep, who plays the steely and pro-"sameness" community Chief Elder.

The seed of a good film weighed down by Hollywood cruft

But his daughter Rosemary (Taylor Swift) is surprisingly interesting, at least symbolically. In both book and movie, she’s dead before the story starts, and she exists mostly to remind us of the consequences of painful memories; after being exposed to cruelty and violence, she asks to be "released" — a euphemism for the lethal injections delivered by, among others, Jonas’ father. In her near-cameo appearances, Swift manages to evoke an older, less stolid world by just looking fundamentally wrong for the film’s aesthetic, with her sharp, delicate features and willowy frame.

Unfortunately, other things are wrong in much less palatable ways. The Giver is the seed of a good film weighed down in Hollywood cruft. It’s wrapped in a mostly pointless voiceover by Jonas, which tells us about emotions that Thwaites is capable of conveying with dialogue and body language while hitting us over the head with the central message. The addition of "drones" to the book’s world is useful as a plot point but feels like a concession to contemporary cultural memes in a story that’s supposed to be timeless. The music often dips into dull, emotionally manipulative boilerplate, which is fitting for the subject matter but not much fun to listen to.

Most notably, it makes significant concessions to people who just want another Hunger Games. The characters have been aged up to their mid-teens, a romance subplot is far more prominent, and the movie slowly spirals into a high-tension standoff between the Giver and the Chief Elder. It’s a shame, because the lack of cruelty is really what’s interesting about The Giver. There’s no love, but there certainly seems to be happiness, a sense of companionship between friends, a sense of pride in one’s work. And no one experiences the depths of pain and despair that punctuate or even dominate many people’s lives. How much worse is voluntary euthanasia than disease and violent death? Or torture and genocide? And nobody even knows what they’re missing.