BWW Reviews: THE GIFT is an Intriguing, Suspenseful Thriller
Recent TV spots tout THE GIFT as "a modern day FATAL ATTRACTION" but, while I can appreciate zeroing in on Richard Roeper's quote for the double name recognition value, it's not. Joel Edgerton's feature directorial debut is an unexpectedly sharp, slow burn. Where FATAL ATTRACTION campily bobs, THE GIFT thoughtfully weaves.
THE GIFT opens with married couple Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) house-hunting in California. As they explore a house, modern and spacious, with a coy pond and high glass walls, it becomes clear that for Simon, the decision to move west from Chicago is a return home. But for both, it's a much needed fresh start.
They take the house and yes, they're going to regret those floor to ceiling windows almost immediately.
Not long after moving in, well before they're settled and the last boxes unpacked, Simon and Robyn run into Gordo (Joel Edgerton), an old classmate of Simon's. Soon, Gordo starts showing up at their house unannounced and gifts begin appearing at their door. Despite Simon's attempts to dismiss Gordo's strange fixation on them, Robyn suspects there's more in Simon's past then he is letting on and that whatever it is, it may have them both in danger.
Edgerton's script is more than solid, but suffers from a very preventable tendency to introduce ideas without having any good use for them - i.e. Simon's fear of monkeys and Robyn's unspecified medical history. The ending is also surprisingly weak. One of the main themes of the film revolves around the power of a lie, but the parallel Edgerton attempts to draw at the end lacks creativity and weight. If you happen to be a fan of GENERAL HOSPITAL (like me), you may remember the third act of THE GIFT happening to our beloved JaSam (damn you Franco!), and (more importantly) you also may remember the relatively simple solution.
Still, THE GIFT stands tall on the shoulders of the actors. Hall is our protagonist, and as Robyn she conveys a troubled history all her own. Edgerton is subtle in addressing Robyn's past, maybe to a fault, but it allows him to filmically portray her psychological state through quick cuts, nightmare sequences, black screens, and repetition. Hall plays Robyn admirably, going from meek and gaslighted to disillusioned but assertive. Her interactions with Edgerton's Gordo are a treat. Throughout the film, she exhibits an understandable uncertainty and ambivalence toward Gordo, with good reason.
Edgerton's Gordo is achingly human. So much so that, like Robyn, we're left feeling as much wary and unsure as scared. What exactly does he want? What exactly is he capable of? Edgerton brilliantly climbs the ladder from "coming on too strong" to "a little bit off," and then to something else entirely, but the film is too thoughtful to let Gordo become some kind of movie monster. Yet he is still able to elicit the discomfort and dread of a Max Cady or Alex Forrest.
But Bateman is the film's biggest surprise, successfully revealing layer after troubling layer of Simon's personality until the contrast between Simon and Edgerton's Gordo grows so stark that the film's (expected) premise is turned on it's head. Bateman is a presence on screen, charismatic but also at times calculating, controlling and defensive. In particular, fans of Bateman's work in ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (like me) will be pleasantly surprised at how unsettling Michael Bluth can be, how emotionally and physically imposing, and then threatening, Bateman can play. In other words, he can play (believably) a bully.
As a director, Edgerton shows himself to be fairly conventional. There are some beautifully composed shots, like the opening shots of Simon and Robyn's soon-to-be home; however, they prove to be unnecessary, as the house never becomes the character Edgerton seems to have intended. Edgerton does succeed in establishing and maintaining a tense, suspenseful mood which making the few jump scares he employs all the more effective.
THE GIFT is hardly the traditional horror film the trailer would have you believe. In fact, the film is more reminiscent of the "artsy" work of Michael Haneke, if more superficial in its treatment of surveillance and bullying. It's also less violent. Still, Edgerton's film resonates because of its inclusion of these topical issues and its strong allegorical overtones - past trauma leading to obfuscation and denial and an attempt at self-exculpation though violence.
That sounds familiar.
THE GIFT starring Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, and Joel Edgerton is rated R for language.
Photo Credit: Matt Kennedy