The Gift

It might seem familiar, but Joel Edgerton's thriller is more complex and rewarding than expected

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The Gift

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Written and directed by Joel Edgerton. Starring Joel Edgerton, Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Beau Knapp, Busy Philipps, Allison Tolman, Katie Aselton, Susan May Pratt, Wendell Pierce, Nash Edgerton, David Denman, Tim Griffin, P.J. Byrne, Mirrah Foulkes.

It begins as a straightforward thriller: husband Simon (Jason Bateman) and wife Robyn Callen (Rebecca Hall) move back to suburban L.A. after a stint in Chicago and run into Gordon Moseley (Joel Edgerton), an old classmate of Simon’s, while out shopping.

“Gordo” is somewhat socially awkward, gives off some pretty creepy vibes, and seems to take advantage of the couple’s politeness, insinuating himself into their lives when it should be apparent that his presence is unwanted.

Soon, he’s dropping by their house during the middle of the day, when Simon is at work and Robyn is home alone, or leaving gifts for the pair outside their front door. Things can only get worse when Simon confronts Gordon about his behavior in an effort to end their “relationship”.  

But things take a sharp turn from here, and The Gift subverts expectations by going to some new and interesting directions. The twists and turns the film takes relate not only to plot, but also tone and theme; this is a far more complex movie than it initially seems.

The 1990s were a boom for this kind of thing, in the wake of the success of 1987’s Fatal Attraction. The more memorable Yuppie Thrillers of the era included Single White Female, Pacific Heights, Fear, and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. And the list goes on.

The formula is simple: suspect character invades the life of a suburban couple, proves to be a psycho, and soon the yuppies are fighting for their lives. Like the everyman hero in Die Hard that influenced a generation of action movies, these flicks are popular because we can identify with the protagonists, and the films play on our everyday fears.  

The Gift, meanwhile, turns the genre on its head a little by distancing us from the protagonists, and forcing us to sympathize with – or at least come to understand – the primary antagonist.

“You might be done with the past,” Edgerton’s Gordo tells Bateman’s character in a line from the trailer, “but the past isn’t done with you.” We think we know what’s going on here, but it’s funny how differently this scene plays out in the actual movie. 

There are revelations from the past, and confrontations in the present both external and internal, and the suggestion that the events of the film aren’t all there is to these characters – they’ve arrived here because of who they are, a natural progression of their lives may well have brought them to a similar place.

In the end, nobody is truly innocent, but we have some kind of understanding for their lot in life.

More shouldn’t be said, but it’s rare for a film of this genre to achieve this kind of depth of character.

Still, it doesn’t really work on the expected level of a generic thriller – it achieves something greater much than that, I feel, but some may leave the film feeling that it doesn’t deliver the expected thrills (it does, however, at least partially work on this level).

The Gift was written and directed by Joel Edgerton, who has given himself the meaty role of Gordon. What could have been the usual psycho is richly enhanced by Edgerton’s work on all fronts. 

As the film went on, I began to feel that all three leads were miscast – it’s especially tough to buy Bateman’s characterization by the end – but that’s part of what makes the film work: the casting and premise set up expectations that the film carefully subverts.

The Gift belongs to the three leads, but an excellent supporting cast (mostly culled from TV) includes Allison Tolman (Fargo) as the couple’s neighbor, Wendell Pierce (The Wire) as a police detective, Tim Griffin as Simon’s boss and Busy Phillips (Cougar Town) as his wife.

It may not work as expected, but that can be a good thing. In the midst of a summer with few cinematic surprises, The Gift lives up to its title.


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