“The Gift” is a slow-burning and intense thriller from first time director Joel Edgerton, who also plays the socially awkward and psychologically damaged character known as Gordo. To call “The Gift” a thriller is perhaps a tad misleading, because it isn’t thrilling in any conventional way – this movie thrills by taking its audience on a morally blurred ride, expertly layering its plot with possibilities so that the end point is far less obvious than it has any right to be. It’s entertaining without ever having to get out of second gear, satisfying the audience by revealing a new snippet of information just as they think they might have a grasp on the types of characters they’re watching. On top of that the film concludes with one of the most morbid twists I’ve seen in recent times, elevating every scene that came before it, whilst also managing to keep its dignity intact by leaving the truth of the matter up for interpretation. This is as solid a directorial debut as you’re likely to see, and a hidden gem amongst a sea of more recognisable titles.
The plot can be summarised pretty easily because the premise alone is far from revolutionary – a man and his wife, (Simon and Robyn Callen played by Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall), leave Chicago for LA in an effort to start anew. From there the demons of Simon’s past begin to resurface in the form of an old ‘friend’, Gordo, who Simon repeatedly calls a weirdo. Initially Gordo seems quite strange, but he is friendly and also attentive, visiting Robyn while Simon is at work and leaving gifts at the house for her to find. There’s a sense that this behaviour is odd but Gordo himself doesn’t actually come across as a threat to the couple. However, when Simon makes it clear that he dislikes Gordo and has no intention of striking up a friendship with him the true nature of both men is revealed, and we as the audience are left to decide which one of these flawed characters is the real villain of the piece.
One issue I have with the plot as I’ve fleshed it out, and as it plays on screen, is that the wife becomes something of a peripheral figure in the film, despite the fact that we see things from her perspective for a large portion of the run time. She feels like a plot device throughout the movie because the real meat of the story revolves around the fractured relationship between Gordo and Simon, which is a shame because her backstory is hinted at several times and never fully explained. This didn’t completely ruin the film for me, but I did feel a lingering sense of frustration as I discussed it and realised that important elements of Robyn’s personality were largely ignored and only brought up when it was convenient for the plot.
The main culprit here is a drug problem that she seems to have suffered from in Chicago, presumably as a result of mental instability and depression caused by the loss of her child – this is touched on and plays an important role in the movie, but the film doesn’t delve deeply enough into the issue to make it feel significant. It’s an aspect of the character’s personality insofar as it moves the plot along, as it’s one of the major factors in the couple moving to LA in the first place and it’s also one of the reasons why Robyn accepts the company of Gordo so freely, but it doesn’t really go much further than that. I feel as though there was more that could’ve been done with this element, but as Rebecca Hall was only there for Joel Edgerton and Jason Bateman to play-off it was cast aside whenever the script necessitated that they should be the centre of attention.
Despite this issue, Joel Edgerton’s direction is excellent – atmosphere is expertly built as the film tip-toes towards its conclusion; jump scares are considered and varied in pace, the performances from both male leads leave you wondering who the real villain is, and the well-structured story is constantly evolving. The movie initially portrays Gordo as a socially awkward stalker, but as the plot thickens the audience begins to sympathise with him because any manner of things could be wrong with him. He may have PTSD, he may be lonely, and he is definitely traumatised by the events that link him to Simon.
You can’t hate Gordo, even as the final credits roll, because despite the fact that he’s playing a game of revenge you really do want him to win. A similar progression occurs with Simon as he goes from being a concerned husband to a near sociopath, which adds to the compassion you feel for Gordo. The way that the film is paced makes these changes feel earned and real, they don’t just haphazardly come about, meaning that you feel a genuine sense of connection to the main characters and you are desperate for Simon to get his comeuppance… until he does.
The movie’s ending is despicable but superb as a truly horrific event occurs before your very eyes; as the dust settles you don’t know whether to throw your fists in the air or hold your head in your hands. It’s testament to the quality of the build-up that the ending works so well, because if Simon wasn’t such a horrible person or if Gordo wasn’t likeable (to a degree) it would’ve felt very ugly indeed. I shouldn’t be okay with the ending, I should’ve been repulsed and it should’ve killed any chance of a positive reception, but it didn’t, it actually made the film that much better.
Nevertheless, perhaps the main reason why this ending doesn’t generate such a visceral negative response is that it isn’t abundantly clear what really happened. Just as elements of each character’s personality were hidden when they needed to be, the truth of Gordo’s revenge was never revealed to either the audience or to Simon. Maybe he did x, or maybe he did y, it’s up to each person in the audience to decide for themselves what they believe. I believe he did the less repulsive thing because I think that makes the revenge all the more delicious, and I like to think that he was intelligent enough to realise that he didn’t need to do anything to devastate Simon, the doubt was enough, but a case can be made for a different story.
Regardless, the ending was well thought out and brilliantly executed, as was the rest of the movie. The only qualm I have with “The Gift” is that Robyn was slightly underdeveloped, but because she wasn’t at the forefront of the narrative I can understand that decision. “The Gift” was well-shot, the direction was excellent, and all the performances were good, particularly Jason Bateman’s; he shone in a darker role and I’d love to see him in more thriller/horror movies. All in all it was a very pleasant surprise and I would recommend seeing it if the more high profile films in cinemas right now aren’t quite up your street.