By Paul Sawchuk
The Gift is a psychological thriller starring Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, and Joel Edgerton. Written and directed by Edgerton, The Gift follows Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Hall) as they settle in after a move from Chicago to Los Angeles suburbs where Simon grew up. While shopping, the couple runs into Gordon “Gordo” Mosley (Edgerton), an old classmate of Simons. Simon quickly becomes suspicious as Gordo, over the next few weeks, leaves several welcoming gifts at their doorstep and begins visiting Robyn at home unannounced. Simon tells Robyn about Gordon’s strange childhood, but Robyn is suspicious. Gordon doesn’t seem as strange as Simon said, and when he continually tells her to leave the issue alone, she begins to investigate into Gordon’s history, eventually discovering something about Simon and Gordon’s past.
The Gift is a rare psychological thriller that doesn’t rely on the threat of actual violence, instead using implied violence to greater effect. Commonly, suspense thrillers use violence as a very real thing to their characters, but The Gift goes in a different direction, using implied threats, posturing, manipulation and paranoia to create a real sense of fear throughout. Is any of the violence that we’re expecting or that we see real? The Gift challenges us to question the difference between physical violence and emotional violence. Both forms are “real”, even if we’re used to seeing physical violence, the eventual implication of The Gift is that both are harmful.
Edgerton, in this spectacular writing and directorial debut, has crafted a cinematic exploration of “past sins” with intriguing characters and an effectively creepy tone that switches with the feelings of the characters. This isn’t a haunted house where the house looked haunted the whole time. When Robyn begins to distrust Gordo, her home turns into a house she doesn’t feel comfortable in. When she starts investigating and talking to Simon, the tone shifts again because of our own feelings towards Simon.
Brought to life with a surprising effort by Jason Bateman, Simon is the standout here. We’re used to seeing him as the straight man against zany actors like Charlie Day or Ryan Reynolds, but here he gets to play not only dramatic, but in some cases a dark, cathartic version of Michael Bluth. Imagine if all the deadpan characters of Bateman’s past were finally let out of the cage and set loose on all the horrible characters he was forced to fight with in the past, and that’s what we have in The Gift.
Edgerton, as a counterpoint, is almost unrecognizable in his mundane dress and middle-aged getup. He looks normal, and that’s the point. He’s meant to have a slightly disturbed look to him, but not overly “creepy”, and he pulls off the understated look well. As we delve into the story with Robyn later on, there is a justification for this demeanour, as well as a justification for her husband’s.
Finally, yes, there is a twist, but not in the traditional sense. I would argue that The Gift purposely avoids resolution. We leave the film with a sense of justice, shock, and ambiguity all with the end hanging open. This isn’t a negative of the film – it’s the best possible thing we can say about The Gift. Cheap psychological thrillers promise shocking twists to compliment their shocking violence and often come off as overdone. There is no “It’s all in their head” or “It was a dream/They were dead the whole time” here. What The Gift offers is complicated and, like Edgerton’s portrayal of Gordo, understated. It will leave you with one unavoidable question and plenty to talk about. Undoubtedly The Gift is the most refreshing thriller and does for the genre what Ex Machina does for sci-fi. Understatement through character driven story can be so much more effective than heavy-handed pontification.