Silver Screen: The Gift
The Gift is a smarter-than-average thriller, but it plays dumb a little too long.
The premise for the movie sounds like a standard-issue stalker/home-invasion thriller: Married couple Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) relocate to his hometown for employment opportunities, and there run into an old friend of Simon’s who takes more than a passing interest in them.
That old friend, Gordon (Joel Edgerton)— Gordo, as Simon refers to him— is more of an acquaintance. Simon professes to barely remember him, but that doesn’t stop awkward, soft-spoken Gordo from repeatedly showing up at the couple’s new home, an unfortunately open, wide-windowed house that allows for maximum peepability. He leaves harmless housewarming presents on their doorstep and eventually gets himself invited to a pleasant, if strange, dinner.
A subsequent dinner party for three at Gordon’s house turns deeply uncomfortable. Gordon seems to bring out the worst in Simon, and his presence brings old tensions back to the forefront of Simon’s marriage even as Robyn struggles to get pregnant.
The Gift squanders too much time establishing this relatively simple scenario, but it finally gets around to posing some interesting questions. How do you break up with a friend? How do you tell a new acquaintance you aren’t in the market for more close associates? Even more ominous, what do you do if someone insists on being your friend?
The Gift has more tricks up its sleeve. Edgerton, making his debut as a feature writer/director, hinges the whole production on a clever plot twist that forces all three primary characters to reexamine their relationships with one another. Edgerton might dilly-dally getting to that point, but once he pulls the switcheroo the simmering suspense takes on an urgency.
The casting makes terrific use of the talented performers’ natural attributes. Hall, wide-eyed and bloodless, has a kind of aristocratic fragility to her, not unlike Mia Farrow’s besieged, birdlike mother-to-be in Rosemary’s Baby. She seems destined for a breakdown. Bateman is an appealing lead whose charm is spiked with smarm, maybe a bit too much, so that his best performances toe the line between likable assholes and assholes you wish you could like. Background players like Fargo’s Allison Tolman and Freaks and Geeks’ Busy Philipps round out the cast nicely, even if The Wire’s Wendell Pierce is woefully underused as a generic detective.
In front of the camera, director Edgerton mutes his imposing stature to highlight Gordo’s meekness. But that subdued physicality seems constantly in danger of breaking free from its confines and spelling big trouble for Robyn and Simon.
The Gift threatens to become a hidden gem as it gains momentum, something along the lines of A Simple Plan, A Perfect Getaway, or A Kiss Before Dying (speaking of Ira Levin, author of the aforementioned Rosemary’s Baby). Alas, it takes one turn too many, and the final twist is more icky than thrilling. The concluding moments are both silly and off-putting, and those attuned to gender politics will undoubtedly bristle at its awful implications. And rightly so.
It’s hard to outright recommend The Gift, given how heavily it leans on its semi-illogical, morally deplorable finale. But that misstep aside, it suggests that actor Edgerton might be a better than average filmmaker. Hopefully The Gift’s best moments portend even better things to come from him.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.