Much like an endowment from which the film borrows its title, The Gift is a true present to the world of cinema. In an era of horror defined by cheap jump scares and an aversion to subtlety, The Gift should not be taken at face value. The television spots and trailers sell the film as a stalker thriller akin to films such as Pacific Heights and Fatal Attraction. There’s definitely elements of the genre scattered throughout the film, but that comparison misrepresents the movie’s nuanced complexities. If you’ve only seen the advertisements, please keep it that way. If you haven’t, leave all of your preconceived notions at the theater entrance. Trust me when I say that it will result in an unpredictable tale of morality and circumstance.
After moving to California, married couple Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) run into an old acquaintance of Simon’s from high school, a man named Gordon (Joel Edgerton). Simon doesn’t recognize Gordon at first but becomes somewhat abrasive after they are re-introduced to one another. Despite being rather awkward socially, Gordon helps to provide a sense of welcoming friendship for the couple. As Gordon begins to overstep conventional friendship boundaries, tension quickly escalates as both past actions and true selves are brought to light.
The Gift moves with timely finesse throughout. Each scene and story point reaches some kind of conclusion by the end of the film. There’s practically no dead air or time wasted on superfluous fluff. Edgerton, who directed this film in addition to starring in it, paces the film with patience and purpose. He’s very careful to elude expectations and to provide jolts to the story when necessary. I am usually the first to condone jump scares, but they work because of how much effort is placed into making the house itself a character. There’s always an aura of unease and claustrophobia whenever Robyn is working from home or when Gordon drops by for a visit. The attentive camerawork and beautiful cinematography help make the house feel more akin to an enclosed prison than a home.
While it is a suspenseful thriller through and through, The Gift is simultaneously a complex character study for all three of the principal leads. Very little is presented as black and white. Each character is filled with layers of graying morality that prevents malicious judgment calls on the part of the viewer. Jason Bateman brings his snarky persona to an entirely different kind of role. He’s not entirely likeable but he is not devoid of reliability. Simon tells Robyn, “It’s really important not to look back.” He’s grown accustomed to being able to nip problems in the bud and move on. The emergence of Gordon back into his life provides realistic actions but also allows him to revert right back to a total jerk depending on circumstance.
The questionable morality of the male leads and the conflicting dilemmas are all mainly showcased through Robyn. She’s a literal avatar for the audience, because we have to navigate the ambiguities of the story as much as she does. At the same time, she’s also an incredibly complex character. My only issue with Robyn is that her importance to the story takes a slight downturn in the third act. However, that doesn’t take away from her importance to the overall story. As more is uncovered, Robyn comes to a realization of her own. Is her happiness with Simon a sham covering up her own doubts and issues? Is Gordon in as much of an entangled emotional web as she is? We aren’t given specific answers, because there’s no simplicity in choosing who is in the right and who is in the wrong. You can disagree with how the characters behave even though their justifications are completely understandable. That’s what makes The Gift such an intelligent and thought-provoking thriller. It constantly presents conflicting ethical dilemmas while also asking the audience to think about how they would act in the same context.
Edgerton’s reserved but impactful direction is also in line with his portrayal of Gordon. Gordon is a role that is surprisingly underplayed. He doesn’t look like much, but there’s always something off about him. It’s difficult to get any sort of read on what he’s thinking or how his eccentricities are manifesting. His characterization is one of the elements that plays around with the usual genre mainstays of psychological thrillers. The instant you gravitate towards being endeared to him, Edgerton pulls the rug out from under you, only for the pendulum to swing the other way again. It’s a remarkable piece of writing and a performance worthy of any decorated actor.
If you pay close attention, many of the story resolutions are hinted at throughout the film. However, that does take away from their biting execution. It’s been a long time since I have been on the edge of my seat during any kind of thriller or horror film. I may have even left a piece of my own moral compass inside of the theater. When the closing credits began, I immediately began to pass on my positive feelings to others. I constantly hear the cynical cries of those who tire of loud blockbusters and reboots. The Gift is exactly the kind of film that should appease those individuals. For everyone else, it’s an excellent piece of filmmaking that is worth the time of anyone who loves the art of cinema.