The Gift (2015)
One of the most common complaints about modern mainstream films–and it’s a warranted one–is that they too closely adhere to the same structure and rarely contain anything other than a rehashed version of what we have already seen. With the industry now a century into its existence and a reliable source of generating ungodly amounts of revenue for big studios, the tendency is to release the same warmed-over vomit time and time again because, well, that’s what we’ll pay to see. Like it or not, we’re a big part of the problem as consumers.
I imagine that our societal predilection for seeing the same movie over and over again is the exact reason why The Gift appears to be an entirely different movie than it actually is in any trailer YouTube is willing to show you. Apparently The Gift was pedaled as some sort of generic summer thriller, the kind where every move is telegraphed from a mile away and you could comfortably go to the bathroom at any point, even if you just drank one of those soda buckets that cost $13 in every theater across the country. This is not the case.
What The Gift is instead is a sure-handed exercise in mounting tension and dread, a simple premise stretched to its breaking point until there isn’t really even an accurate way to perceive any of the three characters comprising the primary cast. The movie opens by introducing us to Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall), a married couple trying to leave their problems from Chicago behind by moving to sunny California thanks to a better job offer. The two of them seem a bit rejuvenated by their new home and clean slate until Simon runs into an old high school classmate named Gordo (Joel Edgerton) during a shopping trip.
This is where the neat ball of yarn begins to unravel, leaving the viewer guessing at exactly where the plot wants to go. Gordo comes across as lonely and off-kilter, a man who may very well have suspect motivations for inserting himself into his old pal’s life out of sheer will. Does he just deeply want to connect with Simon and Robyn, or is there something he isn’t telling them? All signs begin to point to the latter, as Gordo’s repeated pop-ins quickly unnerve Simon in particular. It doesn’t take long for Gordo to become hurt by how little Simon wants him in the picture, and things escalate quickly at a dinner party Gordo seems to botch.
Most movies would be content with this angle, and the plot might have even worked in a more straightforward fashion. Rookie director Edgerton (who also wrote the script) is far from okay with this approach, instead making the intentions of his characters murky across the board. As viewers, we don’t really know whether it’s Simon or Gordo we should be putting our trust in; neither character seems to be fully transparent. Even Robyn, who serves as our most clear-headed window to this tale, gets her credibility clouded once we find out that a pill addiction is one of the reasons she and her husband felt the need to relocate across the country.
Even the title is more than what it appears to be on the surface. While Simon does, in fact, receive physical gifts throughout the time we spend with these characters, Edgerton proves himself more clever than that. A brief interaction during the first long-form re-connection between Simon and Gordo works in service of providing a double meaning for what the titular “gift” actually is, hinting at a much more karmic theme.
Edgerton’s cagey script would have probably been functional with lesser performances, but thankfully we don’t have to find out if that’s the case. Bateman turns in one of his most dramatically-centered performances to date as the short-fused Simon, coming across as a driven man with little patience for anyone messing with him. His frustration with Gordo doesn’t have to be told to us blatantly, as it creeps across his face when the two share screen time. Rebecca Hall nails her role as Robyn even if she gets the short shrift in terms of being fully fleshed-out. She’s fragile, but she operates with a stronger moral compass than her husband and deeply wants to trust those around her. Then we have Edgerton, who despite his other duties in the film turns in his strongest showing I’ve witnessed in front of the camera. Subtle, awkward, and reluctantly menacing, Gordo remains a wild card throughout.
The Gift is the kind of thriller we should get more often. Rooted in psychology and perpetually unreliable points of view, the journey is even more valuable than the unnerving destination. This approach has been taken plenty of times before, but it sure does seem increasingly rare with wide releases. It’s becoming more and more difficult to find a movie that intends to have viewers wringing their hands for the full running time and actually pulls that feat off without a hitch. It’s for this reason that I sincerely hope Edgerton continues to further himself as a half-Hitchcockian author and framer of films. The Gift is fun and terrifying in equal measure, a much more deserving target of all of the Halloween-season attention than the slew of tossed-off horror movies we get every autumn ever manages to be.