Return to Sender, by David Bax
Phillip Noyce’s The Giver begins with a title card briefly explaining that the story takes place in a world where civilization has undergone some kind of ruin and then a rebuild. Immediately after that, a bit of voiceover kicks in and tells us essentially the same thing. From there, an almost non-stop barrage of dialogue across multiple scenes exhaustively fills us in on the particulars of this dystopian community and its rules (take your medications, use precise language, don’t lie). The whole movie seems to be in a clumsy rush toward no place in particular. It’s probably more than twenty minutes before we get our first moment of quiet. It’s meant to be a revelation for us and for the lead character, yet Noyce botches that too.
The premise, which I hope to impart in less than twenty minutes, is that this community has forgotten about humanity’s past, with the exception of one chosen member of the council of elders who, through some nebulous mysticism or science, holds all of mankind’s memories. The story kicks off when our hero, Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is chosen as the new “Receiver of Memories.” The aforementioned botched moment comes when the former Receiver (Jeff Bridges), who has new become the Giver in the only instance of sensible logic the film possesses, shares an exhilarating memory of a sled ride. Climate control has eliminated snow in this world and when Jonas soars down a hill, even if only in his mind, it’s perhaps the only moment of reckless abandon he has ever experienced. However, Noyce and editor Barry Alexander Brown chop it up awkwardly, only remaining at any length on a head-on close-up of Jonas’ face. We get to see Thwaites strain to approximate joy instead of actually feeling it ourselves.
I don’t mean to single out Thwaites, or any of the rest of the young cast, which includes Odeya Rush, Cameron Monaghan and, briefly, Taylor Swift. In a movie where even Bridges and Meryl Freaking Streep are bad, the fault lies with the director, not the performers. I mean, who would urge Jeff Bridges to do a weird voice? He already talks like Jeff Bridges.
With a journeyman like Noyce at the helm, one would expect the film to at least be sturdily constructed, no matter the screenplay. The man has polished up hack work before, in inoffensive fare like The Bone Collector. Here, though, he has slapped together the film in a way that only highlights the groaning problems with Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide’s screenplay. When a movie takes place in an alternate version of reality, it has to do what kids these days call “world-building.” The Giver’s approach could be better described as “world-telling.” It lays out its mythology without care for reason and says that this is how it is whether you like it or not. Then it repeatedly defies its own rules. If the movie is meant to take place over the course of a year, as suggested, why does the infant who is so important to the plot never age? And for a community covered by so much surveillance, they sure seem to miss a lot when Jonas has to sneak from place to place. One of the dumbest bits comes when the Giver shares the memory of a medieval wedding. Lest you mistakenly think he is showing Jonas a Renaissance Faire, an offscreen voice is heard literally shouting, “Beautiful wedding!”
Unfortunately, it’s not so easy to just laugh off The Giver and its stumbling corniness. Eventually, Bridges’ character begins to share the harsh truth of humanity’s past with Jonas. Noyce cuts in actual footage of animal cruelty and human violence. Alongside the pervasive falseness of the rest of the film, this comes across as an insulting cheat meant to jolt us into an emotional response. The film goes from flailing humorously to flailing dangerously.
In the build toward the film’s climax, there’s a shot of Jonas furiously peddling his bike up a roadway. The camera is aimed so that he is coming toward us. Noyce and cinematographer Ross Emery foolishly choose a long lens so that, for all of Jonas’ obvious exertion, he appears to be moving forward at a snail’s pace. The shot is a metaphor for The Giver as a whole. It’s in constant, wild motion but it never seems to go anywhere.