Review: Joel Edgerton's 'The Gift' is not the thriller you think it is
It goes without saying that the impact of social media is a constantly changing, organic experience. You may communicate with someone who lives minutes from your door more virtually than in person. Families keep in closer touch with each other and friendships are fostered across thousands of miles with often up to the minute updates. And, for better or worse, people who decades ago would have faded from your life are still able to find you. Yes, you can’t hide from your High School graduating class anymore. If one former classmate finds you that means another 100 can and the social pressures of accepting or declining a connection make the latter choice a rare event. But what if you had purposefully avoided everyone from that period of your life? Should that give your partner pause? That would be somewhat strange, no? It’s a question deftly explored in the new drama “The Gift.”
Now, if you’ve seen a preview for “The Gift” you’re probably under the assumption the film centers on a conflict between Simon (Jason Bateman) and his “weird” former classmate, Gordo (Edgerton). That’s partially the case, but not the whole story and why this drama with thriller elements (as opposed to a straight horror/thriller) is not at all what it seems.
The directorial debut of Joel Edgerton, the movie is actually told from the perspective of Simon’s wife, Robyn (Rebecca Hall). The childless couple has just moved from Chicago to Los Angeles for Simon’s new job at a successful digital security firm. It turns out Simon actually grew up in Southern California, but purposely hasn’t lived there for years. While shopping at Urban Home (an LA furniture store literally minutes from the house where they shot the film), the couple run into one of Simon's old classmates, Gordo. Simon barely recognizes Gordo, but recalls that they did go to High School together. Inherently awkward, Gordo is still quite friendly providing his phone number and insisting on helping them get settled in their new neighborhood anyway he can.
The next day the couple discovers a welcoming gift on the front steps and, yes, it’s from Gordo. Even though they are slightly startled he found their address, Robyn convinces Simon they should at least invite him over for dinner as a thank you. Simon begrudgingly agrees and so begins a delicate dance begins between the overly hospitable stranger and a couple who have a few secrets of their own as well as from each other.
Edgerton, who also wrote the screenplay, shows a masterful touch in playing with conventional expectations. For the most part Robyn and Simon react to the events in the film in a realistic manner you wouldn’t expect. Edgerton smartly emphasizes this by having the pair verbalize their discomfort as they try to figure out what’s exactly going on. The Aussie filmmaker is also astute enough to make Robyn (and the audience) question if there is anything really wrong with Gordo to begin with or is Simon simply projecting his own personal opinions about an old classmate he claims he barely remembers?
As the film unfolds the characters become increasingly complex as the audience’s initial black and white perceptions of them fade into constantly shifting shades of grey. Is there truly a villain in this story? Unlike most Hollywood productions it depends on your point of view and that makes the film something of an unexpected surprise.
Produced by Blumhouse Productions and released by relatively new distributor STX Entertainment, “The Gift” is much more of a thinking man’s drama than a true “there’s someone lurking in the house” thriller. There are a few shocking moments, but, again, Edgerton is much more interested in the mind games the characters are playing with each other as a means to transfix his audience into questioning what's happening on screen.
On the other side of the camera Edgerton has the notably tough task of portraying Gordo in a manner that he avoids descending into caricature. If Gordo is too odd the audience won't take the proceedings or his actions seriously. Edgerton pulls it off by providing just enough visual and anecdotal clues that its clear Gordo’s full life story could never be fully explained in a 108-minute long movie. He's still something of a mystery by the end of the film and the audience is better off because of it.
Bateman rarely takes on a completely dramatic role such as this and is quite good as a man whose charm can’t mask his inherent desperation as much as he thinks he it does. Somehow still criminally underrated, Hall is the glue that makes Edgerton’s puzzle fit together. Robyn’s perspective and emotional arc makes sure that through all the twists and turns (and there are a bunch of them) the events still feel relatively grounded.
The movie also benefits from a slyly impressive supportive cast including Allison Tolman as the neighbor Robyn confides in and P.J. Byrne as one of Simon’s disgruntled co-workers.
As good as “The Gift” is Edgerton still suffers from a few growing pains common to first-time filmmakers. In particular, the first act takes a bit too long to start bubbling and, as the movie progresses, you do begin to wonder why Robyn knows so little about her husband’s formative years. But, after all the secrets are revealed and the repercussions ripple through Robyn, Simon and Gordo’s lives, Edgerton pulls off his most impressive feat, you somehow have sympathy for them all.
“The Gift” opens nationwide on August 7.