Opera Meets Film: Joel Edgerton’s Brilliant Setup & Payoff of Wagner’s ‘Die Walküre’ in ‘The Gift’

By David Salazar

“Opera Meets Film” is a feature dedicated to exploring the way that opera has been employed in cinema. We will select a section or a film in its entirety, highlighting the impact that utilizing the operatic form or sections from an opera can alter our perception of a film that we are viewing. This week’s installment features Joel Edgerton’s “The Gift.” As always, SPOILERS apply. 

A few weeks ago we took a look at the strange inclusion of opera in “Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues,” and how it was unsuccessful overall. The biggest reason is its ultimate lack of setup and brief inclusion that made it seem more like a disposable choice in the context of the film.

That said, just because opera shows up briefly in the film and never comes back up again without setup doesn’t mean that it can’t be effective. Just look at Joel Edgerton’s “The Gift.” The film, about the past coming back to haunt its main characters, uses opera very briefly, perhaps even less than “Anchorman 2;” however, it is even more effective because of the way it is set up and pays off.

Edgerton stars in his own movie as Gordo, a strange man trying to reconnect with Simon, who went to school with him. He does his best to be pleasant, inviting Simon to his home one evening. Simon and his wife attend and it is while they are at Simon’s “home” that he presents them with a gift, one of many he gives them throughout the film. They open it to reveal a DVD of “Apocalypse Now.” Gordo makes reference to how “The Ride of the Valkyries” will sound great on the surround sound system that he fixed for them earlier in the film.

Once he makes mention of that specific moment in the film, the audience is given a hint that at some point it will make a return. It’s a set-up that should get a payoff. The director has made a promise to the audience and we sit and wait, subconsciously for most viewers, for this subtle payoff to come.

The film then takes its many twists and turns with the characters increasingly finding themselves at odds with one another. Gordo is actually exposed as a fraud in that previous scene, “his home” being someone else’s. Simon is also exposed throughout the film as a bully and a character not to be trusted, the film focusing on the complexity of its characters and constantly questioning their morality. The audience finds his or herself constantly grappling with which character to side with, as does Simon’s wife Robyn.

As the film reaches its climax, Simon is brought back to the living room where his surround sound system exists. He receives a CD that says “Play me” and the audience is suddenly brought back to a scene in Gordo’s “fake home” where Simon is making fun of him. Suddenly the audience is brought back to that moment, bridging all the characters’ actions together. Once the conversation comes to an end, Wagner’s music blasts through the speakers suddenly. It jolts the viewer for a moment, something we were both not expecting but subconsciously waiting for. It’s a moment of shock coupled with satisfaction, remembering the promise made verbally by the director to the viewer and its current payoff.

Of course, the soundtrack is clearly from “Apocalypse Now,” the callback to the film itself no mistake. Edgerton would never have had Gordo make such specific mention of the film and then include its soundtrack with helicopters if not for a specific intention. The famed “Ride of the Valkyries” segment in Coppola’s film is the moment when the American forces are raiding a village and destroying it, the Army’s heroics being called into question by the callousness with which the soldiers generate destruction despite the ideals they are fighting for. On a smaller scale, Gordo is very much doing the same thing to Simon – he has been raiding and destroying everything that Simon worked throughout his life to gain. However, as is the case with “Apocalypse Now’s” moral ambiguity, Gordo and Simon’s rivalry is also very much of the ambiguous nature with both characters engaging in questionable behavior in the present and past.

The segment lasts but a few seconds, but the detail in its setup provide tremendous payoff and depth to the story of the film. That’s how a strong filmmaker brings together movies and opera effectively.


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