Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut, The Gift, comes packaged as one of those glossy “adult” thrillers that hit peak popularity in the late ’80s and early ’90s, the kind in which some perfect American family is menaced by a smiling human monster, a wolf in sheep’s clothing. On the surface, it’s an odd starring vehicle for Jason Bateman, exasperated straight man of Arrested Development fame, who rarely appears in projects so devoid of comic intention. But tear back the layers of suspense the film wraps itself in and it’s easy to see how, with a few tweaks, its basic scenario could be played for laughs: It’s basically a cringe comedy with the comedy withheld, spinning off from the dilemma of how to tell someone from your past that you don’t want them to become part of your present. And for Bateman, it offers a new opportunity to twist an essential component of his star persona—that impatience he plays to the hilt—into something much darker.
Bateman is not, by the way, the ostensible antagonist of The Gift. That role belongs instead to Edgerton, who casts himself as Gordon, a fidgety, unnerving military veteran who insinuates himself into the lives of the ostensible protagonists. First seen lurking in the background of the frame, like a lost spirit that’s gusted into view, Gordon approaches estranged high-school classmate Simon (Bateman) at a home-goods store, where the latter is shopping with his wife, Robyn (Rebecca Hall). Simon doesn’t initially recognize Gordon (it’s been decades), and the encounter—perfectly acted and staged to emphasize the discrepancy in significance it holds for the two men—ends with a polite, empty promise to catch up soon. Gordon, however, takes it upon himself to make those vague plans concrete, and begins showing up unannounced at Simon and Robyn’s swanky new house, inviting himself inside and leaving behind presents, like a school of fish for their koi pond. “A little socially awkward” is how Robyn charitably describes their clingy new friend, while Simon dusts off an ancient nickname: “Gordo The Weirdo.”
So far, so familiar. The Gift escalates accordingly, as Gordon’s behavior goes from annoying and inconvenient to frighteningly stalkerish, especially once Simon decides to “break up” with him. Edgerton, who also wrote the script, creates an atmosphere of uncomfortable surveillance, gliding his camera around the edges of the couple’s glass box of a home. (It’s one of those midcentury modern houses with more windows than walls—an unfortunately transparent sanctuary for two people who feel exposed as it is.) Edgerton isn’t above a hoary jump scare or two, but he otherwise tackles his Cape Fear premise with a degree of technical and dramatic intelligence.
More impressive, however, are the games the film plays with the audience’s sympathies. It becomes increasingly clear that Simon and Gordon have a history, one that goes far beyond having shared a classroom. As Robyn begins looking into what happened between them, essentially running an amateur background check on her own husband, The Gift gains power not so much from the unraveling of its central mystery, but from how it dismantles the typical rooting interests of the genre. The performances play a big role in this reversal. Embodying a kind of alpha-bro version of his usual sarcastic everyman, Bateman unleashes the cruelty that sometimes nips at the edges of his comedic creations; he’s all confidence, no compassion. Hall, meanwhile, reconfirms her talent for investing genre material with emotional honesty, here finding a strong dramatic arc—a terrible, slow-motion awakening—in what is essentially a reactive housewife role. She’d make a mean Rosemary of Rosemary’s Baby.
Pivoting out of conventional horror-flick territory into the realm of psychodrama, and drastically blurring the lines separating its heroes from its villains, The Gift turns out to be much smarter and more troubling than it looks on the surface. That is, until the serious regression of its final act. Working himself into a corner, Edgerton betrays the less-sensational course he sets. Rather than continuing to explore what happens to a relationship when one party really sees the other for who they are, the film cooks up a particularly sour climactic twist, choosing elaborate revenge-plot machinations over the agency of its heroine. It’s exactly the kind of “mind-blowing,” trash-thriller ending the movie seems to be admirably, consistently steering away from for much of its running time. Unexpected nuance is, in this case, a gift that does not keep giving.
For thoughts on, and a place to discuss, the plot details not talked about in this review, visit The Gift’s spoiler space.