Have you ever run into someone at the store and not been able to place where you know them from, so you just played along? Now, imagine if that awkward moment did not end there, but instead spiraled into unwanted visits, confrontations, and drudging up old secrets. That is the premise of The Gift.
In The Gift, Robyn (Rebecca Hall) and Simon (Jason Bateman) have moved closer to family for a fresh start after a miscarriage and a “rough patch.” As they are getting settled in, they run into Gordo (Joel Edgerton, who also writes and directs), a man who went to high school with Simon. Despite the fact that Simon didn’t even remember him, Gordo quickly elbows himself into their lives, leaving gifts at their doorstep and showing up uninvited. Robyn thinks that Gordo is a little odd, but nice and harmless. Simon thinks that there is a reason he was called “Weirdo” in high school. As Gordo continues to put an awkward strain on their marriage, and secrets begin to come out of the past, Robyn and Simon continue trying to regain a sense of normalcy in their marriage. When Robyn discovers that Simon is a bully, however, everything she, and the audience, knows comes into question.
The Gift is a psychological drama built around the tension of uncomfortable social niceties. It takes the anxiety over getting out of an unwanted social situation without causing offense and gives it much higher stakes. By structuring a thriller around awkwardness, writer Joel Edgerton makes room for doubt, so that, along with Robyn, the audience can be consoled and protected, just to have our fears come back to bite us. This dynamic creates plenty of uneasiness and suspense without unrealistic drama. Until the problematic end.
This film has many outstanding moments and compelling elements. The sets are a solid combination of homey and angular, so that the familiar space of a kitchen or bedroom also contains corners around which a villain could lurk. Additionally, the film is full of taut moments of silence that linger just long enough to put you on edge. These techniques build on the social anxiety inherent in the plot, creating a sense of insecurity in the familiar. I think, however, that the film also struggles to settle on an antagonist in a way that could create moral ambiguity if done more seamlessly, but does not quite hit the mark. In fact, I think the film overshoots. In the end, the conflict between Gordo and Simon goes a little too far, ambiguously bringing Robyn into their destruction in a way that, if it is true, has repercussions for her life that the film seems unready to address. This last twist (which I won’t spoil) seems like a final effort to drive home a point that was already made.
Nonetheless, the performances in The Gift are outstanding, carrying the story where the screenplay falters. Joel Edgerton is nearly inscrutable as Gordo. The nuances of his performance make it difficult for the audience to decide if Gordo is an okay, slightly odd guy, or if there is something more sinister afoot. Meanwhile, the film has an incredible asset in Jason Bateman, who so often plays likable, if beleaguered or morally questionable, protagonists. To cast him in the role of the bully plays on the audience’s expectations brilliantly, making it uncomfortably understandable how Simon fooled people for so long. Bateman, like Edgerton, plays his character with a nuance that works with the shades of gray. His barely restrained anger at times could play as frustration or as a bully waiting to lash out. Meanwhile, Rebecca Hall’s responses to these two men create most of the suspense in the film. Her compassion and frustration set the tone for how the audience feels about the other characters.
Although The Gift is suspenseful and well-crafted, its screenplay meanders too much in the middle, loosing steam on its journey to an unsettling ending. I rate it 3.5/5 stars.
The Gift was written and directed by Joel Edgerton. It runs 108 minutes and is rated R for language.
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