The terrifying center of Joel Edgerton’s The Gift isn’t the creepy stalker. Edgerton knows that the only thing more unnerving than an external threat is the one that comes from within, and he uses that knowledge to craft a twisty, cagey picture that evolves into a surprisingly thoughtful marital drama that shows how the sins of the past live beyond the behavior of one tormented soul. In his feature-directing debut, Edgerton creates a moody thriller that keeps the audience captivated with striking visuals and powerful performances, especially from Jason Bateman playing perfectly against type.
Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have moved to California for a fresh start. Simon has a promising job at a security company, and the married couple needs to get away from the hard times they faced in Chicago, which included a lost pregnancy. While they’re out shopping for their new home, Simon and Robyn run into Gordo (Edgerton), a childhood acquaintance of Simon’s who quickly and awkwardly tries to ingratiate himself into the couple’s life with gifts and randomly showing up at their house. When Simon moves to push Gordo away, calling him by his high school nickname “Weirdo”, Robyn starts to wonder about the details of her husband and Gordo’s past relationship, and what secrets the two men are hiding.
The more Edgerton moves towards uncovering the marital strain between Simon and Robyn, and the further away he moves from “Gordo Might Be a Creepy Axe Murderer”, the better The Gift works. It would have been very easy to structure this as a corny, B-movie stalker flick, and every time Edgerton indulges that impulse by using jump scares or melodrama, he undermines the far more effective reality of the story he’s telling, which is that the bad guy isn’t the “other” even if that other comes off as somewhat off-putting.
Edgerton plays Gordo with disturbing specificity. He’s creepy, but in a sad, lonely, pathetic way that plays like a time bomb waiting to go off. His performance places us squarely in the middle of Simon and Robyn’s opinion of the character. Some audience members are likely to side with Simon and see Gordo as a creeper who needs to stay away, while other will side with Robyn and see him as a socially awkward, but good-intentioned person who shouldn’t be shunned just because he’s a little quiet and a bit too presumptuous with gift-giving and dropping by. Misunderstanding formal social conventions doesn’t make someone a monster.
The real monster, to The Gift, is inside the house, specifically Simon. Casting Bateman was a stroke of genius because he’s so naturally likable and has a charming, everyman demeanor. But Bateman’s fans know he works best when he’s playing against type (State of Play, Bad Words) and The Gift takes the actor to a new level of darkness that still plays as real and relatable. By making Simon’s past deeds a mystery, it raises a far more disturbing question than, “Is some old acquaintance of my husband out to get us?” The Gift raises the unnerving question, “What if I married a bad person?” Not a “bad person” in the sense that he’s a criminal, but rather someone without remorse or compassion.
Casting Bateman automatically builds in goodwill towards Simon, and we accept him as an average guy until Edgerton starts peeling back the layers to expose an awful person, albeit a totally mundane one. The film almost goes too far in making him a sociopath, and the character works far better when his mean-spirited attitude is cast as socially acceptable, e.g. saying that people like Gordo need to deal with their own problems. What makes Bateman inherently likable gives Simon a lot of his power, and it’s a memorable performance as we both despise the character but also wonder if he deserves vicious comeuppance for what he did to Gordo.
This leaves Hall awkwardly in the middle, and the film never seems entirely sure how to use her. She’s the audience surrogate and an investigator, but she’s also trapped between Simon and Gordo yet completely removed from their past affairs. Hall earns our sympathy, but the film can never delve deeply enough into her character because it’s too busy untangling what happened with Simon and Gordo, so Robyn becomes relegated to a pawn in the ickiest manner possible.
But it’s a conclusion that’s meant to send you reeling, and while I’m sure it will spur some debate, Edgerton deserves credit for trying to push his film past the creepy stalker and make the domestic threat far more unnerving than a weird guy from high school. He also has a great eye for making the threat at home feel pervasive through his fantastic use of windows that make Robyn’s surroundings feel more like a glass cage than transparent and safe. It’s borderline-Hitchockian to use open windows and make the audience feel like they’re seeing even less of what’s going on.
The Gift is a surprising delight that manages to transcend a schlocky premise of a dangerous old acquaintance with dark secrets. Edgerton finds something far more universal with his dark fable, and while it occasionally stumbles on moments of unintended camp, the dark core of his story is more than enough to keep us captivated.