Would it really be preferable to strip away one's most difficult and trying emotionspain, remorse, anger, melancholyrather than not have any feelings at all? In "The Giver," based on Lois Lowry's best-selling, Newbery Medal-winning 1993 novel, an alternate reality is imagined that becomes increasingly menacing in its detached, superficial complacency. As directed by Phillip Noyce (2010's "Salt
") and adapted for the screen by Michael Mitnick and Robert B. Weide, the film strikes a handsomely conceived, thematically mature chord that helps it to break free from its YA fantasy labeling. Lowry's book has become a respective mainstay on middle school reading lists nationwide, but its acclaim comes from its expansive ideas and free-thinking existentialism. This darkly riveting movie version lives up to said source material.
In a deceptive utopian society encased by distinct locational boundaries, residents have had all memories erased and are expected to follow a specified list of rules. They must use precise language, wear assigned clothing, obey curfews, not lie, take their daily injections, and never, under any circumstances, question authority. Every year, the elderly workers are retired to a place called Elsewhere while a fresh graduating class bid farewell to childhood and are each assigned a purpose by the Chief Elder (Meryl Streep). During this latest ceremony, a surprise is in store: Jonas (Brenton Thwaites) is called upon to be the Receiver of Memory, a highly exclusive, top-secret role that hasn't been filled in ten years. Reporting to The Giver (Jeff Bridges) for training, Jonas is taken aback to discover an infusion of memories transmitting to him no less than the secret history of the planet. With this newfound knowledge, he finds himself torn between abiding by his community's strict teachings and finally breaking free from a dispassionate status quo where the joy of living has been stolen.
"The Giver" is observant and boldly challenging, a thinking-person's allegory set in a world that has eliminated human differencesamong them, color, race and religionas a means of demolishing conflict. The unnamed setting is an astonishing achievement in production design, art direction and visual effects, very plausibly and absorbingly appearing to be a place that has never been glimpsed before on film. From the antiseptically designed, immaculately landscaped neighborhood "dwellings," to the lonesome illuminated pathways and wooded streets, to the mountainous, cloud-enshrouded cliffs where Jonas journeys to train with The Giver, to the majestic futuristic city that looks, for once, less like CGI and more like a genuine place into which one could step foot, the picture's aesthetic surroundings are enough on their own to envelop the viewer. Also of note is Ross Emery's (2014's "I, Frankenstein
") intoxicatingly complex cinematography, taking a page from 1998's "Pleasantville
" as striking flourishes of color begin to usurp a cheerless black-and-white existence.
It could be argued that 25-year-old Brenton Thwaites (2014's "Maleficent
") is a little long in the tooth to be playing Jonas (especially since the character was 12 in the novel), but it also makes sense for he and best friends Fiona (Odeya Rush) and Asher (Cameron Monaghan) to see their roles aged to about 17 since they are supposed to be leaving adolescence behind and graduating to adulthood. With this established, the youthful-looking Thwaites lends sympathy and a burgeoning passionate conviction to Jonas, who begins to see through the veil of artifice and control that has been placed over his fellow citizens' eyes. Odeya Rush (2012's "The Odd Life of Timothy Green
") is touching as Fiona, Jonas' would-be soul mate if only touching and affection were permitted. Jeff Bridges (2010's "True Grit
") brings a wizened levity to The Giver, still struggling with the fate that befell previous Receiver of Memory Rosemary (Taylor Swift), while Meryl Streep (2013's "August: Osage County
") is arrestingly authoritarian, her grim agenda hidden vaguely behind an air of politeness as Chief Elder. As Jonas' mother, a terrific Katie Holmes (2011's "Jack and Jill
") is the epitome of buttoned-up repression, asking no questions and doing only what has been brainwashed into her. Alexander Skarsgård (2013's "Disconnect
") has less to do as Jonas' father, but it is worth noting that he disappears so fully into the part as to be unrecognizable. And, for her too-brief screen time, Taylor Swift (2010's "Valentine's Day
") does well as Rosemary, calling no attention to her superstar status as a musician.
"The Giver" escalates in urgency and depth as Jonas moves closer to uncovering the malevolence hiding beneath the surface of his community's well-manicured exterior. The bleaker inferences of this story are utterly chilling, touching upon ageism, prejudice and death from an angle both modernistic and timeless. There is also an ultimate warmth to the tale, a propensity for goodness in the shadow of seeming hopelessness. Director Phillip Noyce perhaps rushes too quickly through the third act, particularly when it comes to an ending that would have benefitted from an extra dramatic beat or two, but this is a small quibble. For a motion picture taking place within a population suffocated by its own sameness, "The Giver" dazzles and provokes as a rallying cry in favor of the irreplaceable messiness and beauty that life has to offer.