Sunday, August 31, 2014
The Giver is based on Lois Lowry's 1993 novel of a reorganized society in which conflict has been stamped out through the elimination of memory and emotion. The book was a forerunner of the current vogue for dystopian young-adult literature and the film, well directed by Philip Noyce, succeeds where other films in the genre fall short simply by being about something. It's all very well to take an anti-totalitarian stance, but The Giver is specifically concerned with the transformative effects of knowledge in a way that feels both long overdue and very fresh. After an unspecified disaster all citizens are required to take daily injections that regulate their emotions and memories. Only the Receiver of Memory (Jeff Bridges, whose character is known as "The Giver") is allowed to know the past and what it might mean for the future. Our way into the story is through Jonas (Brenton Thwaites), who when he turns eighteen is selected to be the next Receiver and be given access to all human memory and emotion. What happens when The Giver and Jonas get together may be expected - Jonas immediately recognizes what's wrong with his society - but the way that Philip Noyce executes it is not. Noyce films the early scenes in black and white and only gradually introduces color as The Giver awakens Jonas's senses. The look of the film is austere by design, the cinematography, design, and costumes (Jeff Bridges is costumed like a 19th century President) create an almost old-fashioned feeling; it's as if we were watching an older idea of what the future might look like. The memories that Jonas receives are as simple as snow and as dire as a battlefield, but Noyce shoots them in exhilarating color to mirror Jonas's sensory disruption.
Before watching The Giver I saw a trailer for a film called The Maze Runner which appears to follow the standard YA template of putting pretty people in dire situations. There are pretty people on hand here - Thwaites, Odeya Rush as Jonas's friend Fiona, Alexander Skarsgard, Katie Holmes, and Taylor Swift - but The Giver is unusually elegant in its restraint. The action adventure plot takes over quite late in the film, when Jonas must rescue an infant who may be the next Receiver, but Noyce prefers to focus on the sensation of a kiss or the color of an apple. I'm not even sure that The Giver needed the presence of Meryl Streep in a beefed-up role as "Chief Elder". Streep gets to play coiled menace but is cut off from the main action until the end, when she stats her case that free will means humans will "choose wrong". Bridges gets a slightly on-the-nose monologue in response, and he plays it beautifully. The Giver is an unusual case, a film I enjoyed as much for what wasn't there as what was. While it's box-office performance likely won't merit a sequel, this well-made and quietly politcal film deserves more attention that it has received.