Everyone has secrets. Secret desires… secret fears… secrets that drive them. Revealing the secrets in Joel Edgerton’s scintillating psychological-thriller, The Gift, would be a betrayal. This slow-burning puzzler doesn’t take any shortcuts on its way to a twisty finale that delivers the shock without any schlock. It’s a tour-de-force from Edgerton, who writes, directs, and stars in this modern-day tragedy masquerading as a genre potboiler. Unapologetically smart and calculating, The Gift is an unnerving cocktail of creepiness and human frailty. Easily the most surprising film of the summer thus far.
Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are the married couple you pray will move next door. They are young, upwardly-mobile, and too smart for their own good. Simon, in particular, thinks he has a steady bead on things as he efficiently climbs the corporate ladder. For Robyn, however, life is a bit more fragile. Her first pregnancy “ended badly,” plunging her into a self-destructive haze of pharmaceuticals and denial. Their marriage is amiable and a bit too perfect. You can almost hear the eggshells crackling beneath their feet.
Suddenly, Gordo (Joel Edgerton) enters the picture. He was a High School chum of Simon, and is clearly fixated on renewing their friendship. The feeling is most definitely not mutual. Simon recalls that Gordo was “the kid who got sent away,” and everyone called him, “weirdo.” He also understands the immutable law of ‘unwanted stranger’ movies; old friends never re-appear without some strings being attached.
The Gift succeeds because Edgerton keeps those strings cleverly concealed. Gordo is a quiet, shadowy presence who could be around every corner… or none of them. Like a one-night stand who “forgets” his t-shirt on your bedpost, Gordo leaves a succession of seemingly-harmless gifts on the young couple’s doorstep. It’s all completely benign… or completely menacing. It’s a credit to Edgerton’s script that we feel an escalation, even when nothing warrants those suspicions. He focuses on how the characters interpret a bottle of wine, or some koi fish in their entryway pond. Indeed, this is a movie obsessed with interpretations and their disastrous consequences. Robyn views Gordo as a sympathetic and sad figure, but Simon sees him as a threat. His overt hostility towards Gordo seems perfectly justified, and yet eerily overblown. There’s a story there… a string to be pulled… but Edgerton refuses to pull it for an excruciatingly long time.
The term ‘Hitchcockian’ gets thrown around a bit loosely these days, but The Gift is worthy to wear the moniker. The set design plays a key role here, with Edgerton pulling the walls tighter and tighter. With its floor-to-ceiling windows and darkened hallways, Simon and Robyn’s handsomely-appointed home feels more like a birdcage than a safe haven. What’s more, Edgerton removes all of the safety nets by making each character damaged and untrustworthy. It’s unsettling to still have doubts about your allegiances when a movie is nearly over. Truly, The Gift isn’t about predicting the last man standing, but the last man lying.
Everyone is perfectly cast. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine anyone but Bateman playing Simon. His easy-going sarcasm disguises a simmering anger that might explode at any moment. He makes you laugh one minute and cringe the next. Hall continues to rack up excellent performances, as well. She exudes strength and intelligence, even as the world unravels around her. There is a natural vulnerability in her eyes, but you never doubt her formidability. Even Edgerton, who has struggled with some performances in the past, understands what his role requires. He is a lightning rod that never flashes; all you see is the brushfire that it spawned.
While Edgerton’s direction (his feature debut) is assured and his script is taut, the story strains believability at times. When events fall perfectly into place toward the end, you feel the director’s grip on the reigns tightening. You forgive these trespasses, however, because of the meticulous set-up. Edgerton takes his time crafting the character dynamics, so we indulge his extravagances. The result is nothing short of a modern tragedy; a fatal flaw laid bare for the world to see.
It’s difficult to gauge how audiences will receive The Gift. You can count the number of jump scares on one hand, and Edgerton constantly defies the ‘geometry of horror’ with his selection of shots. It’s a small movie with big ideas, which often spells box office death. That would be a shame, because this movie deserves to be seen. It’s exhilarating to find a modern movie that steers everything towards an explosive final reel. Edgerton is definitely a filmmaker to watch.