Film review: “The Gift”

August 18, 2015

The Gift starts, as many films do, with the story of young married couple Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) who move into a new neighborhood. They recently came from Chicago to Los Angeles, lured by the promise of a job promotion for him and some down time for her following a battle with depression.

All seems to go well until, during a chance encounter at a store, they meet a man from Simon’s past, an old high school classmate named Gordo (played by writer/director Joel Edgerton). Simon barely recognizes him at first, and they exchange awkward pleasantries. When Gordo shows up uninvited at their home with a welcoming gift Simon is alarmed but under pressure from Robyn–who finds Gordo odd but lonely and harmless–they agree to meet him socially. The uninvited encounters and mysterious gifts escalate, however, and Robyn comes to realize that there’s a connection between Gordo and Simon that neither is telling her.

The Gift, like other effective thrillers such as Cape Fear and Fatal Attraction, trades on ambiguity. Without a clear anchor about what’s going on-and with equally plausible alternative explanations at hand-the characters and audience are left uneasy. Personal boundaries are pushed, but is it malicious or unintentional? Gordo (or “Gordo the Weirdo” as Simon has dubbed him) may or may not be the creepy stalker Simon claims he is, but everyone in the film harbors some secrets.

The Gift avoids too many horror movie cheap scares-you know, the would-be victim fearfully lurking in a darkened house just before a harmless pet inexplicably jumps out of the darkness with a growl. My personal tolerance is two; a filmmaker gets two freebies but the film loses credibility (and artistic integrity) the third time it draws from that well. Edgerton may have the same sensibility because he stopped one cheap scare short of demerit. The film does have a few plausibility issues; the ending is a little off-the-rails and it’s hard to fathom why Simon and Robyn–whose stylish Hollywood-area home has floor-to-ceiling windows–don’t think to put up curtains in the weeks and months after they believe they’re being watched and stalked from outside the house.

The casting is excellent and the actors are very good all around; Jason Bateman is perfect for the role, playing against type as a handsome great guy and doting husband who may or may not harbor an unsavory past. Much of the first half of The Gift plays like a routine grade-B thriller whose plot and paces are familiar. However patience is rewarded in the second half as the film becomes more intelligent and complex; expectations are undermined and plot twists emerge. The Gift is a suspenseful thriller worth a look.