A film review by Craig J. Koban September 14, 2015

RANK: 24


2015, R, 108 mins.


Jason Bateman as Simon  /  Rebecca Hall as Robyn  /  Joel Edgerton as Gordo  /  David Denman as Greg  /  Beau Knapp as Detective Walker  /  Allison Tolman as Lucy  /  P. J. Byrne as Danny  /  Busy Philipps as Duffy  /  Wendell Pierce as Detective Mills  /  Katie Aselton as Joan

Written and directed by Joel Edgerton

As an actor, Joel Edgerton has given one quietly understated and authoritative performance after another, bringing a level of nuanced confidence in films like ZERO DARK THIRTY, WARRIOR and ANIMAL KINGDOM.  He’s also a remarkably shrewd screenwriter, and his work on 2010’s masterful psychological thriller THE SQUARE was testament to that.  

Now, Edgerton is trying his hand at directing within the thriller genre with THE GIFT, and the results are surprisingly effective.  The film has been advertised as a fairly routine mad stalker thriller, but beneath that superficial surface lurks something more subversive, sinister, and creatively compelling.  Edgerton manages to deftly maneuver between playing within audience expectations of the genre and completely and wickedly subverting them at the same time.  Nothing is ever as it seems in this film, which is reflected in Edgerton’s (whom also stars in and wrote the film) atmospheric direction and dread inducing scripting.  

The film starts off modestly and patiently, never really tipping off the kind of macabre twists and turns that the story takes later on.  It also could be argued that THE GIFT has, at face value, a paint-by-numbers premise that reeks of overt familiarity.  This is true, but it’s how Edgerton takes these very formulas and then radically contorts them for his own fiendish needs that sets the film apart.  Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have recently located to Southern California from Chicago after Simon takes a new job (with lucrative room for upward growth), which the couple hopes will help rekindled their marriage and life together.  They’re rather well off, if their lavish and modern new home is any indication, but their overall enjoyment of their new surroundings is thrown for a loop with the appearance of “Gordo” (Edgerton) during a chance meeting at a retail store.  Initially, something seems definitely off about Gordo, to both Simon and, in many respects, the audience as well.  He seems affable enough, but maintains a socially awkward vibe that comes off as off-putting.  Simon can’t quite remember who Gordo is…that is until he tells him that they were former high school classmates.   



They part their separate ways, but a few days later a gift from Gordo mysteriously shows up and Simon and Robyn’s home, which Robyn appreciates, but leaves Simon feeling ambivalent (after all, how did Gordo know where they live?).  As days pass Gordo begins to make impromptu personal visits to the couple at their home, which culminates in a small dinner gathering, during which time Simon and Robyn try to size up this oddball man, but fail to put all the pieces together of what makes him tick.  Nevertheless, Robyn sees Gordo as strange, but relatively harmless.  Contrastingly, Simon slowly begins to sense that Gordo is a clingy, mentally disturbed, and potentially dangerous soul that could do harm to his marriage.  Predictably, Robyn and Simon grow increasingly at odds over Gordo’s true motives with his frequent visits (and his frequently left gifts at their doorstep), but when details of Simon’s past with the man begin to rise to the surface it creates a whole new unexpected emotional struggle and conflict between everyone that boils over in increasingly hostile and unhealthy ways. 

THE GIFT’s overall narrative goes down many preordained paths, to be sure, but the shrewd manner that Edgerton lets his screenplay methodically unfold into one unexpected reveal after another is what ultimately makes the film so darkly and hypnotically intense.  Edgerton, in terms of how he writes and performs Gordo, is chillingly calculating for how he never truly leaves all of the character’s cards on the table.  Is Gordo really a creepy stalker with a bone to pick with Simon, or is he just a lonely and introverted soul looking to reacquaint himself with past school chums?  Is he an emotionally troubled, but pure hearted man with noble aims or is he a degenerate sociopath with more on his mind that seeking out an innocent relationship with Simon and Robyn?  THE GIFT becomes more alluring and gripping in how it ensnares viewers into the overall conundrum that is this character.  Thankfully, the film never answers these troubling questions outright, which leads to a sense of discovery for the audience alongside the other characters.   

Fascinatingly, Simon also becomes a character whose own motives – and past ties with Gordo – become progressively murkier and hard to decipher as the film progresses.  There’s the notion that Simon, in all of his revelations to his wife about past high school times with Gordo, may or may not be a reliable source of truthful information, leaving THE GIFT compulsively mysterious on multiple levels.  As those two character arcs are explored, Edgerton’s script then tackles some larger ideas – at least as far as typical genre thrillers like this go – about the whole nature of upper class, elitist entitlement and how one can justify a present life of privilege and wealth after a past of questionably moral indiscretions.  Edgerton, more than perhaps other directors working within genre troupes, seems more compelled at diving into the whole thorny nature of what constitutes an ideal and happy family unit and how insecurity and apprehension over those we are unfamiliar with can serve as a damaging influence to future happiness.  THE GIFT is progressively more idea and thematically centered than I was frankly expecting going in. 

Edgerton is also a natural director of remarkable instincts, and in THE GIFT he thoroughly evokes – through lighting, static compositions, architectural designs, and how characters interact within the frame – an unending sense of ominous dread and anxiety.  The new home for the couple almost becomes a secondary character in the film for the ways it serves as a conduit for all of these people to interact in progressively more inhospitable ways.  The production design not only casts a shadow over viewers as to the affluence of Simon, but it also becomes a claustrophobic harbinger of impeding doom for everyone involved.  That, and Edgerton uses silence better than any recent film I’ve screened: In a relative age when thrillers are typified by numbing action and repetitive violence, THE GIFT refreshingly places more prominence on nerve-janglingly mood and fear-inducing atmosphere...and an overwhelming sensation of the unknown.    

THE GIFT also firmly cements Jason Bateman as one of the most criminally underrated actors of his generation, and he gives arguably ones of the most thankless performances in one of the trickiest roles of 2015 (it’s kind of miraculous that he manages to convey open armed congeniality and condescending smugness at the same time).  Rebecca Hall has a tough acting challenge as well in the sense that she plays a woman that’s kind and sympathetic while being paranoid and deeply distrusting of all the men in her life.  And, as mentioned, Edgerton’s innate impulses for not telegraphing Gordo’s true motives throughout THE GIFT is perhaps the finest gift he bestows upon his production.  Gordo is neither a scary individual, nor is he an innocent babe in the woods here.  The fact that the film keeps us all on the tip of our toes, forcing us to use deductive reason to figure Gordo out is its strongest merit. 

I think, though, that THE GIFT somewhat writes itself into a corner as the final act rolls in, and you can sense Edgerton struggling with a conclusion that both makes logical sense and seems shocking at the same time.  There are also some subplots here and there that are developed, but then ignored (like Robyn’s past drug addiction) to the point of being distracting.  Yet, THE GIFT adeptly balances nail-biting terror and soulful tragedy in equal measure…and better than most other thrillers made by veteran directors.  It’s a thriller that positively torments viewers in the most squirm-inducing ways, and as far as rookie filmmakers go, Edgerton has crafted sometime shockingly good here.   

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