The Giver (2014): Review

NOTE: This is the review for The Giver. I am also working on a deconstruction that looks at its treatment of religion, gender, sexuality, race, colonialism and its mirrored utopian and dystopian ideals. As this is a review I refrain from “spoilers” in the hopes that those who watch media for the “Joy of Discovery” will be able to use this to inform their choices. Let me know what you think of the film in the comments!

Cinematography: Put simply, The Giver is very beautifully constructed; the movement between monochrome and chromatic visuals feels at first cliche but quickly stands out as artistic because of the continued shifting of saturation. When the entirety of color finally returns to the screen it is almost a tangible impact. The shots are clean, and while there are rather more “cuts” than I usually prefer in film the subject matter and action lends itself well to the film.

I would have liked to see a bit more playfulness with the hue and composition of memories; while they’re mostly “shown” in first person, we know that memories are far from perfect. Playing with the quality of the recording and of the remembrances (imperfect recollections, low-saturation for more ‘ancient’ memories, etc.) would have really driven home that they were memories and not snippets of film.

Plot: This is not a movie that you watch for plot. For one thing, the plot is uninteresting and rather cliche. For another: if you’re like me and haven’t read The Giver, you will still learn almost the entirety of the plot from the trailer. It’s not incredibly complex.

What makes this film stand out, however, is in how the narrative is told. Tension swells and falls without ever really breaking. Indeed, I think that this is the source of the majority of the negative reviews about this film. It was a refreshingly uncommon experience from what I’ve come to expect from soft-science fiction. Rather than telling an epic story with a climactic shift from conflict to denouement the film finishes with the threads unraveled, the story unfinished, and no real climax explored.

This will be incredibly frustrating for many viewers, I suppose. But the beauty is in the fact that the film never promises any of the things other films promise. From the moment Jonas, the protagonist, experiences color in all of its glory it’s clear that The Giver is intent on evoking a set of cultural histories and experiences in the audience. It is not about telling the story of Jonas and his mentor or the Communities where they live. It is about recreating the experience of the cultural identity of humanity and posing questions about the nature of what makes us human.

And somehow the film manages to do this without pretension, without banging the audience over the head with this idea. Without stating it outright. Indeed, in a way I think it was maybe too well done because it did not prepare audiences to watch differently from their usual perspective.

Acting: Part of the issue with assessing the quality of acting in the film is that the characters are supposedly emotionless (or at least emotion-lite) and robotic in speech by design. That said, some performances were notably lackluster or spectacular.

Katie Holmes fails to deliver a performance befitting the writing of her character; this is disappointing and likely the result of poor direction. While it was clear the character was supposed to struggle with feelings of anger, pride, and love it falls flat thanks to an almost mono-tone affect and body language. This changes later in the film toward the end, when there is no more dialogue for her character, but her reactions to the experiences around her are perfect. This is why I believe that she was “directed” to be more flat. I would have liked to see Holmes given the chance to flex her skills a bit more.

Cameron Monaghan comes depressingly close to convincing as Asher without ever quite hitting the mark. This is likely a combination of poor writing and, I’m sorry to say, poor choices in acting. The character as a whole is two dimensional and introduced and explained almost entirely through dialogue or monologue by other characters. Indeed, for a character so integral to the narrative of the film he is given very little screen time or impact on the events. It’s almost impossible to relate to him as anything other than a vehicle for the plot. That said, I didn’t much miss Monaghan’s presence on screen; it never felt like he inhabited the character as either roguish jokester or military man. This is frustrating as Monaghan is a really great actor once he’s inhabited a role.

Meryl Streep and Jeff Bridges provide excellent foils for each other both as actors and as the characters they inhabit for the film. With very little other than body language they communicate decades of history between their characters and provide an intimate experience for the audience. I was wary of Bridges for the role but he played it to the hilt; likewise Streep, a personal favorite, never fails to enrapture whenever she is on screen.

As an unabashed fan of Alexander Skarsgård, I was very sad not to see his breadth used in this film. It’s not that he was bad or unconvincing, just that he felt unused and unexplored. His character deserved a greater emphasis and level of discussion than it received especially for some of the events surrounding it. That he is the “husband” of the head of law enforcement and yet lies and breaks rules in a society which punishes these things by “releasing” is interesting and worth noting, but it is brushed off with very little emphasis whatsoever. That said, his ability to play a specific scene (which I’m sure everyone will know once they see it) without even a hint of emotional attachment to the gravity of his actions is amazing.

Pacing: Finally, the pacing of this film was a bit off. I had trouble following the time of events to the point where I would have easily believed they happened over weeks or days. There was a complete lack of a reference point which would have been easily supplied by adding one or two lines to any number of characters to imply how much time was passing at various points in the film. Indeed, the one time this happened it felt impossible that literally months had passed because there was no build up or narrative persuasion beyond the fact the character says “I haven’t done it for months now” or something to that effect. Mitnick (new to Hollywood screenplay writing if IMDB is to be believed) and Weide sincerely drop the ball here several times over the course of the film, tainting what is an otherwise solid piece of writing (except for the character of Asher).

Overall: This film was definitely worth watching and I would highly recommend it with caveats:

  1. Do not expect a film that is filled with action, excitement, and tremendous battles between good and evil. This film explores shades of gray and the shifts between monochrome and chromaticism. It is worried less about good and evil and more about right and wrong and the capacity for good and evil within both extremes.
  2. Do not watch this film for the story, but for the experience of watching it. At the risk of being too forthright: step back and allow yourself to be influenced by the scenes instead of driven by the story that they tell.
  3. Notice and watch for the details; the visuals of this film are definitely what drive it.

With these three things in mind you should at least find yourself with a good experience. Personally, this was one of the more enjoyable films I’ve seen in quite some time because of the emotional capital it was able to build with very little effort. The scenes of Jonas’s training triggered almost a visceral response and experience and I was often moved. This is a movie that I would watch again and again. While the film is rated PG-13 this is primarily due to one scene of explicit war-violence, including death.

This film is a breath of fresh air in an over-crowded science-fiction elevator of films. An easy watch that also makes me think. If I had to score it out of 10 I would give it a solid 8.5 with points off for poor choices in writing, pacing, and the occasional lackluster performance.

About Michael Robinson

An eclectic person living in a world rife with binaries, opposition, anger and pain and trying to find the spectra, love, happiness and catharsis within.
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