Triple-threat Joel Edgerton has a winner with his new psychological thriller The Gift. It’s a twisty-turny low budget effort that provides some real chills a few genuine thrills and a great deal of tension.
Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are newly arrived in Los Angeles from Chicago – he got a big promotion and she’s working from home to set up an LA branch of her own company while recovering from the emotional trauma following a miscarriage.
As they’re on a shopping trip, they have a chance encounter with Gordo (Edgerton), who knew Simon in high school. When they get home, the find a gift on their doorstep – a nice bottle of wine – from Gordo as a welcoming present. Before you know it, they’re having Gordo over for dinner and chatting genially – though the framing of the scene (alternating close-ups) makes the evening feel uncomfortable.
In almost no time at all, we learn that Gordo was nicknamed Gordo the Weirdo in high school – and The Gift begins skewing into darker places.
At first, we’re convinced that Gordo is, indeed, a weirdo – possibly even psychotic. Then we begin to think that maybe that first encounter wasn’t an accident and Simon and Gordo are conspiring to push Robyn into another emotional breakdown. Finally, a revelation turns everything upside down and we begin to see Simon in a new light.
Usually, I like to see this kind of movie take a bit of time to set things up and let the audience get to know the characters but here, casting creates a bit of shortcut that allows Edgerton (who wrote and directed) to bring on the creepy almost immediately.
Precisely because we’re used to seeing Bateman the genial Everyman, we can skip that getting to know you stuff – and everything we need to know about Robyn is developed as the film progresses. As for Gordo, Edgerton plays him as just the tiniest bit over-the-top (as Simon notes early on, ‘he just seems a bit off.’).
Then, when we see an unexpected side of Simon – Bateman playing against type effectively – we begin to wonder if it’s Gordo who’s the real weirdo. Another event at about the beginning of the third act fuels our growing discomfort with Simon and the film ramps up the tension and picks up the pace to a conclusion that is genuinely unsettling.
The Gift plays like an update of a late seventies/early eighties psychological thriller (think When a Stranger Calls or The Hand That Rocks The Cradle) but with an examination of moral fluidity and existential angst. No matter which way we turn, we can’t say with any kind of authority that either Simon or Gordo is the hero or villain.
Our only real anchor to some kind of moral solidity is the fragile Robyn – and she’s both a victim and the sole moral survivor of the tale. Hall is marvelous in the role, communicating both Robyn’s fragility and strength.
Bateman could be seen as a revelation here as he sheds that abovementioned genial Everyman type to create a more complex and much darker character – as opposed to Edgerton, whose Gordo almost-but-not-quite becomes sympathetic. Whatever they were in high school, they have not changed much.
As a writer/director, Edgerton delivers. The gift is a sneaky smart thriller that relies on revealing layers of characterization throughout and playing on audience expectations – instead of great gouts of blood and maniacal overplaying.
If you’re all tentpoled out, The Gift could be just the thing for you.
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Photos courtesy of Blumhouse Productions