Joel Edgerton is known in the United States as a hunky character actor, but his work in his native Australia is more ambitious than that. He’s written several screenplays, including the excellent thriller The Square, that unfold with the sort of implacable logic that The Coen Brothers might admire. The Gift is Edgerton’s debut as a director, and he succeeds at something that eludes most directors: he is able to create tension and suspense from nothing. The Gift shifts gears often – we think we are watching one film, only to discover another layer of intrigue – and while it tilts toward the absurd, the performances lift the material anyway.
Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), a happily married wealthy couple, return to Southern California after living in Chicago. They buy a big, airy house in the hills, so they can have a proverbial “fresh start.” One day someone recognizes Simon at a home furnishing store: his name is Gordo (Edgerton), and he knows Simon from grade school. Gordo ingratiates himself into Simon and Robyn’s life, first by leaving gifts on their doorstep then by showing up for dinner. There is something off about Gordo, both in terms of how he speaks and carries himself, so Simon’s annoyance becomes an outright dislike. Simon unilaterally decides he and Robyn will not see Gordo anymore, and strange things start to happen: the dog goes missing, and there is evidence of a break-in. Simon immediately suspects Gordo, and Robyn slowly realizes they have a history, one that forces her to reconsider everything she knows about her husband.
Edgerton’s approach recalls Adrian Lyne and even Michael Haneke, filmmakers who excel at creating intense thrillers around affluent characters. The home and offices in The Gift have the veneer and polish of a West Elm catalog, and the people inside them are equally attractive. The point is that all the wealth cannot hide their true colors, and the Gordo character is the lynchpin that unearths Simon and Robyn’s notion of themselves. The Gift effortlessly transitions from a comedy of manners into a suspenseful film about a disturbed man, and Edgerton adds tension with atmosphere and “gotcha” scares. While “gotcha” scares are the cheapest trick available in this genre, Edgerton handles them effectively, realizing that silence is tenser than a menacing score. More importantly, the scares are a tool for developing Robyn’s character: she has mental health problems, which Simon tolerates and exploits.
Hall and Edgerton are reliable actors – Hall unfortunately is typecast as the spouse of a brooding men – so the real surprise in The Gift is Jason Bateman. Bateman has no problem with unlikable character (e.g. Juno and Up in the Air), yet here he sheds his comic chops and adds menace instead. Simon starts the film as an everyman, the sort who seems decent in an inoffensive way, but Gordo unearths the dormant monster underneath. I don’t want to reveal Simon’s exact nature, except to say Bateman can play the roles that Michael Douglas would take in his prime. If anyone ever decides to remake Fatal Attraction, Bateman would be a terrific choice for the lead role (Edgerton would be a good choice to direct that imaginary project, although it would wallow in clichés that Edgerton seems averse toward).
Gordo gives several gifts in The Gift, each creepier than the last, and the circumstances surrounding are where Edgerton loses his way. Up until the climax, the economy of characters is what makes the movie so much fun: we think there are only so many ways the plot can go, and the simplicity of Simon/Robyn’s pleasant home give the suggestion that these unfortunate events could happen to anyone. The climax, however, requires that several characters be in multiple places at once, which sacrifices plausibility in order to “solve” the plot. Despite that stumble and an apparent ambivalence over one particular victim, The Gift ends on a chilling note that suggests Edgerton has some respect for his audience. Gordo and Simon becomes husks of the men they once were, and the best thing about The Gift is Edgerton leaves it up to us to decide who, exactly, deserves it.