Written and Directed by: Joel Edgerton
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Jason Bateman, and Joel Edgerton
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Not every gift is welcome.
Arriving out of the Korean revenge thriller tradition, The Gift simply does not give a fuck about convention or decency. Joel Edgerton's debut twists into the sort of dark corners not typically explored in the typically sterilized, comforting confines of the multiplex, something for which it earns immediate praise. It’s a film whose upending of familiar genre dynamics isn’t simply a gimmick—it’s an ethos meant to turn the tables on a systemic cultural infection that allows malicious behavior to thrive unchecked from high school to corporate board rooms. When one character insists to another that the past is not done with him, it’s not ominous; rather, it’s rousing because some people deserve to be haunted, even if the film becomes tangled in thorny decisions when dishing out its revenge.
Sympathies initially lie where they usually do, with the seemingly happy couple moving into a posh home in the Hollywood Hills. Husband Simon (Jason Bateman) has earned a promotion requiring the move, while his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) aspires to open a design business of her own. Life is great until they bump into Gordon (Edgerton), Simon’s old high school classmate who is a bit too eager to catch up, especially considering Simon hardly remembers the guy. His advances become increasingly invasive: a gift left on the couple’s doorstep escalates to visits with Robyn while Simon is at work. He seems genuine, but you can’t help but agree with Simon: he’s a little weird.
But as Simon continues to resist these overtures (primarily because he thinks Gordon is out to creepily woo his wife), Edgerton’s wicked screenplay begins to unwrap its own secrets. Loyalties and sympathies shift with every tantalizing revelation—or at least the tease of a revelation, as the film strings audiences along with cryptic conversations and shifty demeanors. Everyone seems to be hoarding secrets or past trauma, the twin fault-lines rumbling beneath The Gift, just waiting to finally erupt once shit gets real. Without spoiling, let’s just consider it the point of no return, when the film has firmly begun to turn on its own head, having morphed from Cape Fear to Rosemary’s Baby. Suddenly, this becomes Robyn’s journey into a past she’d rather not confront, and Hall’s suspicious, smart performance is a fine audience surrogate.
Caught between two varying shades of unseemly characters, Robyn finds herself a prisoner in her sleek glass house, her past anxieties suddenly reawakened when strange, invasive noises emanate from within its walls. Edgerton stages her nervous wandering with prowling, uneasy camerawork punctuated by jolts in a skillful recitation of home invasion technique. When operating in this mode, The Gift preys on visceral fears of one’s home suddenly becoming unsafe, particularly once Gordon’s behavior takes a deceptive, aggressive turn that plays to expectations.
A more troubling deception awaits, however, as Edgerton goes a step further than home invasion: what happens when your entire life is suddenly invaded and upended? What if the outwardly perfect life you’ve constructed is has its foundation in shameful secrets? Much of The Gift’s effectiveness lies in its cerebral twists, which unfold with the verve of a trashy thriller yet retain a punch in their perception-shifting turns. At a certain point, you begin to actively revel in the comeuppance unfolding on-screen, a sense of delight creeping into your brain once you realize The Gift is shaping up to be a warped takedown of an obnoxious, entitled mindset as it toys with the dynamic between its predator and prey.
Edgerton deftly pitches his own performance to place Gordon in a nebulous zone between awkward and creepy. He strikes you as the sort of guy who has spent too much time stalking former classmates on Facebook and has moved his obsession into real life. As pitiful as he is dangerous, Gordon proves to be slippery until the final credits in his quest to channel his own victimization into a sick revenge plot. His tortured past is immediately evident in Edgerton’s desperate eyes, but the breadth of it reveals itself later through a visible pain he relishes in passing on like a curse.
(Mild, vague spoilers from here on out.) On the receiving end is Bateman, whose usual easygoing shtick is quickly undercut with a passive-aggressiveness that begins to smother the screen. At any given moment, it feels like Simon will raise his voice to the level of condescension expected of patronizing businessmen. Gordon may be strange, but he’s genuine in a way Simon is not, as nearly every word rolls off of Bateman’s tongue with total inauthenticity—like Robyn, you begin to have a hard time believing a man whose face seems to deploy dismissiveness as a reflex. Simon has a resting bitch face that becomes a perfect avatar for smug men who are as hollow as their forced apologies. He’s a bully who’s never had to answer for anything in his life until this specter from his past gloriously forces him to squirm. You don’t want him to wriggle off the hook.
The Gift similarly wants him to writhe, as it subjects him to a climactic revelation that unravels with a perverse sense of anticipation. Opening a “gift” has rarely felt so ominous and exciting all at once, and, even if an astute viewer can guess its contents, the film reaches beyond its base perversions to leave on an ambiguous note. Edgerton’s only glaring misstep comes here, as Robyn sadly becomes a passive instrument of revenge; what had been her story suddenly reduces her to an object caught in the crossfire of two men. In mining these dark, lurid developments, Edgerton loses a grip on the tone—your willingness to revel in this trashy comeuppance sort of dissipates once you consider who the true victim is and how the film now has little time to consider her.
If you don’t consider the resolution an indictment of toxic masculinity’s ill effects on women, I suppose you’d call it problematic. Certainly, it’s disappointing to see a heroine’s body become something of a battleground for two men, and this speaks to the film’s willingness to indulge in twisted material. It doesn’t feel safe, at any rate, and its provocation is welcomed in place of the flavorless, disposable stuff that floats in and out of theaters like so much ephemera. I have issues with The Gift, but isn’t it sort of great to have issues instead of completely forgetting about the movie before you leave the parking lot?
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