“The Gift” is the kind of movie people like to say don’t get made anymore, an original film aimed at the adults, not relying on gimmicks, tricks, huge budgets or some preexisting source material, but instead built on a tight, lean story about actual characters who are more complex than they initially seem. It has much more in common with Alfred Hitchcock than Michael Bay, in the best way possible. It takes the audience on a ride, building up to a pretty wild conclusion, never dumbing down or pandering but instead challenging and engaging, exactly the kind of film that works as a nice palate cleanser after a summer of huge blockbusters.
Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move back to Simon’s hometown so he can work a new job, and shortly after coming back to town, Simon is seen and approached by Gordon (Joel Edgerton, who also wrote and directed), an old friend from high school. Gordon quickly latches on to Simon and Robyn, dropping by during the day to visit Robyn when Simon is at work and constantly dropping off gifts for them, going out of his way to be kind and giving, which Robyn doesn’t mind too much but Simon gets weirded out by. It becomes obvious that Gordon being back in Simon’s life is upsetting him, even though from the outside Gordon does seem to have the best of intentions. But we know this is a movie, and shit is gonna get intense and so it goes. Simon tries to break off the one-sided friendship with Gordon, and Gordon starts stalking and terrorizing them in small, impossible to prove ways.
The most interesting thing about this isn’t even how Gordon covertly intimidates the couple but instead how his actions cause a rift between Simon and Robyn and how their relationship struggles through this difficult period. Just like the above movie poster alludes to, the past is something that often must continue to be dealt with in one way or another, and not only does Simon have some obvious past sins he needs to atone for, but Robyn finds her present life dictated by her own past misdeeds, and when these things get held over each other’s heads, the whole thing starts to fall apart. Relationships between people often seem strong strong but in reality are very fragile things, and this movie reflects that idea, how some dishonesty and lost trust can result in a crumbling foundation.
“The Gift” is effective because the set up is pretty simple – past comes back to haunt Simon in the guise of Gordo the Weirdo – and it is all done very well. This thriller is built on atmosphere and suspense, as the story unfolds slowly and more pieces of the puzzle are put into place, and there is a wonderful under-reliance on jump scares which is very admirable (there is one effective jump scare that stands out because it is the only one in the whole thing), as the mounting dread and horror comes from wondering what Gordon is capable of and whether or not we’ll find out if Simon is truly deserving of whatever is coming. And without going into details or spoilers, the final twenty minutes or so provide revelations that make this simple thriller much more complex and interesting, and as the audience, we are never really told or guided to any definitive conclusions of our own about who is to blame for what or who is right and who is wrong, there is much more nuance than that, much bigger questions initially expected to be presented at the outset of this story.
It also helps to have people like Bateman and Hall doing very solid work, especially with Bateman doing a role that isn’t typical for him, lacking in comedy, going to some dark, unexpected places as the movie progresses. There’s nothing showy or flashy with how they approach their roles, they just play them honestly and it all works. Also Edgerton managed to direct himself into a pretty creepy performance as Gordo, his unease and awkwardness exhibited in his physicality and speech emphasizes the tension of each scene he is in, as he seems to be a person capable of snapping or doing something rash and unexpected at any moment if the wrong thing is said.
This is just a well made movie, with an interesting set up and complex ending that leaves some things to think about, definitely more things than most mainstream movies try to impart upon people, and especially things that people are kind of afraid to really thing about, like who we are and what do we deserve as a result of our past actions, and can we really ever see something horrible as a gift to us.