A delayed-secret suspense thriller of unusual stealth, The Gift comes from actor and screenwriter Joel Edgerton, here making his feature directorial debut. Among this summer’s worthwhile movies, this one faces a particular challenge, since its marketing campaign makes it look like a slasher outing.
It’s not. Check the MPAA rating for a clue: The Gift received an R for language and language alone; no violence. So, some will see The Gift expecting one sort of thing, but they’ll be getting another.
All three leading performers are scarily convincing on the film’s own tight, clammy terms. Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall play Simon and Robyn, recently moved from Chicago back to Simon’s native Los Angeles. Simon’s a security system salesman up for a promotion; Robyn, a graphic designer, is struggling with the emotional aftermath of a miscarriage.
Shopping one day, they chance upon Simon’s old high school classmate, a quiet, tense fellow named Gordo. He’s brought to life by Edgerton with a calm, quiet authority pointing to trouble around the bend. At first, Gordo’s attempts to ingratiate are touching: A bottle of wine appears on the couple’s doorstep, followed by fish for the koi pond. Gordo, who does not talk much about his own life, invites the couple over for dinner at his unexpectedly plush digs.
Simon, a controlling sort of fellow, is creeped out by his old acquaintance’s pushy, needy impulses. Something’s going on under the surface of the social encounters, indicated by Gordo’s early promise that he’s willing to forget what happened when he and Simon were teenagers and to “let bygones be bygones.” Gradually The Gift unwraps the story of what happened back then, while playing a clever shell game with the characters and our sympathies in the present day.
Bateman has a unique screen quality, and he’s giving his most intriguing performance to date here. Best known for being the sly voice of relative reason in raunchy comedies (Horrible Bosses, Identity Thief), his timing is practically unerring, and he doesn’t bother with finding ways to make the audience like his characters. There’s a steely edge to his technique, and it’s extremely well suited to The Gift. (Can’t say more; spoilers.) Hall, one of the most honest and expressive of all contemporary movie actors, is superb at realizing her character’s innate sadness and what she’s doing to shove it aside in a marriage built less on trust than on moving forward at any cost.
Edgerton wrote and acted in The Square, released in 2010 in the U.S. The film played around with genre conventions (film noir, in that instance) to similarly gratifying results. In The Gift, Edgerton and cinematographer Eduard Grau nudge the camera forward very subtly, using slow creep-in-closer shots to focus our unease. Elements of the script are certainly familiar; Michael Haneke’s psychological thriller Cache is one possible reference point, and there’s a sinister final plot development that goes all the way back to Elizabethan and Jacobean theater (as well as Bruce Norris’ play “Purple Heart”). Some of the scare bits in The Gift feel secondhand. But even with various supporting players doing their part, at heart this is a three-character chamber piece. And Bateman, Hall and Edgerton are three very interesting actors showcased in a confident directorial debut.
The Gift (R): ★★★✩✩