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Any sort of marketing you may have come across for this film might have you thinking you know exactly what this film is going to be about. You might be thinking about such psychological thrillers as The Hand That Rocks the Cradle or Cape Fear, or Pacific Heights to name a few, and you might assume that The Gift would be like one of these, a sort of throwback to the kind of thriller that was nearly a dime a dozen back in the 90s. If the aforementioned suggestion is true, you might be correct in linking it to those films, but you would be wrong in thinking that The Gift is a repeat exercise, a carbon copy of better thrillers from the old days. It is a wonderfully devious descendant of some of the greatest thrillers and stands on its own as a piece of unique storytelling.
All the familiar tropes are present, beginning with a married couple (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) moving into a new California home from the suburbs of Chicago for a fresh start and a new life. While out shopping for furniture for their new home, they run into an old high school acquaintance from Simon’s (Bateman) past, Gordo (Joel Edgerton) who is invited over for dinner one night, which then leads to the first of several presents being sent to the couples home in what seems like a harmless series of kind gestures. However, things quickly change (and not exactly in the ways you might expect) when Simon makes it clear that he no longer wants anything to do with his awkward former classmate.
Little things begin to slowly damage Simon and Robin’s picture perfect situation from the inside. Their dog unexpectedly goes missing. Fish in their front pond end up dead. Who else but Gordo is suspected. While he is without a doubt a creepy character, the film’s depiction of who or what the antagonist really is in the story seems to shift and the effect is a great twist on the tried and true aspects we expect in a film like this.
With much of the conflict split between Simon, Robin and Gordo, there is much richness in terms of the acting to be enjoyed. Jason Bateman is surprising in his role as the charming and ambitious husband, who is also a bit of a jerk. Bateman comes with all the usual quirks that endear him to us when we see him in lighter, more comedic fare. However here, he also comes with a large side of snark, gradually revealed the further back we peel the layers, which essentially sets him on the opposite end of the spectrum of the kinds of everyman characters he usually plays. It is a disturbingly delicious role for him, one that makes an audience feel a certain way about Simon.
Rebecca Hall comes complete with a quiet power that is compelling in a big way. True, this film can essentially come down to a conflict between Simon and Gordo, but Hall’s Robin is the person who ends up playing a much larger role than you might believe going in. As the character who becomes our avatar, allowing us to experience much of the psychological obstacles and the fear and uncertainty that comes with that through her. She reveals a vulnerability that makes her such a strong character. She and Simon are at odds about Gordo’s treatment, where she’s partial to Gordo’s awkward kindness, sensing a bit of a kindred spirit, Simon is almost immediately put-off.
Joel Edgerton shows off an impressive display of triple-threat skill as writer, director and actor in his directorial debut. He crafts a grounded and tightly wound movie, with a script that is well contained (even if it is contrived at some points) with wonderful subtleties, leaving room for a whole host of things to be suggested or inferred without it all being spelled out to us. He is not around a great deal, leaving much of the more dramatic bits to Bateman and Hall to play with, but he is present just enough to do what he is meant to.
This is film is mostly shot in and around Simon and Robin’s new home, with a few exceptions. Cinematographer Eduard Grau did a marvelous job of finding creative ways to shoot the same place and present a different effect each time. The spaces when Robin is home alone and feeling as if she isn’t really alone for instance, are shot with a precision that underscores how such a large home could conceivably feel uncomfortable. There are tight shower shots reminiscent of something out of a Hitchcock film, and long, dark scary hallway shots designed to elicit something unsettling and the effect works.
The Gift is that better-than-expected summer gem that gets right down to business at the start and keeps moving until the very end. A gift it is, quite literally, that comes packaged with a dash of menace and a surprising side of Hitchcockian flair that makes Edgerton’s offering a success.