One could look at the trailer for The Gift and feel as if they’d seen it before, and if not, that the trailer had revealed enough of the story to make a trip to the theater unnecessary. The seemingly spoiler nature of the ad appeared to be an aggressive marketing tactic to add buzz to what was probably a mediocre movie. Having now seen it, I can confidently say that not only is The Gift very little like what the trailer purports it to be, but it’s also very, very good.
The setup is simple. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are a decidedly well off couple who have just moved away from the city to Simon’s rural hometown with an eye toward starting a family. They are at the store one day when they run into Gordo (writer/director, Joel Edgerton), a former high school classmate of Simon’s. Gordo seems strange, but nice enough, and the young couple engages him in a politely awkward way. Soon after, Gordo the Weirdo, as he was so lovingly called back in school, begins to insert himself into their lives, and as his impositions become more intense and prying, a bigger story begins to unfold, and it threatens the livelihood of the young couple.
Jason Bateman is a much better actor than he gets credit for. His Simon is a dense, nuanced character, and it is a perverse pleasure to watch as the layers of his personality are slowly peeled away. It’s kooky, upsetting stuff, made all the more believable when played opposite Rebecca Hall who, if the movie gods are good, will soon become a household name. The script cleverly subverts the “stressed housewife” trope, but it’s Hall who brings Robyn to life, making each of her character turns, as well as her reluctance to rush into judgment of Gordo, even when it seems proper to do so, that much more interesting and truthful. I don’t want to dig too deep here, as it’s the character work that makes The Gift truly sting.
This is a film without a real villain. Even though Gordo, on the surface, appears to be our antagonist, as the story progresses we find that there is no good or bad here, just a twisted situation which, as Edgerton’s script guides our perspective, creates a reluctant sympathy for everyone involved. None of the characters are perfect, and it becomes easy to see how anyone could fall into such difficulties. By refusing to paint anything in black and white, and by leaving many events tantalizingly ambiguous, The Gift left me with a lot to chew on. As I discussed the film with others who had seen it, the lines between good and bad became so deliciously blurry – so true to life – that I found myself mulling over the ethical quandaries presented when I really should have been sleeping. There are enough ambiguities as to who did what and why that any interpretation is valid, and each creates a different morality. It seems the villain here is not a person, but circumstance.
To say more would be to betray the fun. This is definitely one of those “the less you know, the better” types of films, so I’m hesitant to discuss it too deeply. Take this as a blanket advocacy of The Gift. Go see it, and you will be pleased. Not only is it a delightfully unsettling thriller, but it also has more to say about systemic oppression, bullying, and the dangers of mob mentality than many films which attack these issues head on.
The Gift is a very strong directorial debut for Edgerton. There is nothing overt about his style, and it’s easy to settle in to the world in which it occurs. It feels like real life, so much so that when the spare moments of explicit visual artistry occur, they punctuate the vibe and deftly prevent the audience from getting too comfortable. While there are a few small issues with pacing and general construction, these are garden variety complaints which could be lodged against nearly every first time director. Edgerton has made a solid little film, and it excites me greatly to think about what he will bring us in the future.
The Gift opens today in Philly area theaters.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.