“Seemed like a nice guy.”
Home is where the heart is, supposedly. Also in house is the resident fear, tucked away in the shadows, creeping and creaking along the floors and up the walls. Good suspense thrillers are like acts of street magic. They set us up and we go along with the trick, hoping for shock and awe and excitement. The Gift is a classic mirepoix, carefully thrown together to build a bold taste and a rich stock. But what’s different is the nuance, the depth and layers of flavor that reveal themselves piece by piece. We’ve been served this story before, many times in fact. What separates and elevates this film is its craft, nimble repurposing, and absolute control. Great movies create a discussion and startup debate. The Gift gets you talking just as much as it gets you thinking. Not many wide release features can say that for themselves.
Transplanted from Chicago to California, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) start like a couple plucked from any other movie. Back near his former hometown, Simon’s a hotshot scaling the ladder in security system sales. Robyn stays home, recovering from the stress of her past job and its effect on her miscarriage. They find a house and get settled in. And while out buying furnishings they bump into Gordo (Joel Edgerton). He’s quiet, odd, socially inept. Simon claims to not recognize his old high school classmate. It’s clear Gordo stands in front of Simon scared, a grown man cowering not physically but emotionally. As for Simon, he shrugs it off, recalling that the kids used to call the guy “weirdo”. Then a gift shows up on their door. And another. And another. It’s a Pandora’s Box of personal revenge and retribution that can’t be closed.
The Gift is an updated homage to the early 90’s home invasion thrillers yet is more inclined to stimulate the mind than eye-gauge its audience. It’s most like the world of Unlawful Entry with subdued takes on the characters of Single White Female. For this niche genre, privacy of the home and self is more than a subtext; it’s a character in and of itself. As such, the storyline has to follow a familiar beaten path. It’s a pretty racially drawn profile: Caucasian, wealthy, newly married. Sometimes the male lead even works in home security, proving that not even the richest or the most prepared can keep the danger out. These types of stories have dwindled because of modern advances. In their heyday it was easier to believe that a wire could be snipped or an alarm could be zapped. Now it’s nearly foolproof, creating a heist just to get inside the house. The Gift works because the antagonist is welcomed in with open arms. Most movies develop a forced entry; this willingly tucks the key under the doormat.
Jason Bateman may be the name-grabber for the film, and rightfully so, as he is a comedic talent pushed to new dramatic levels here. But the lead really is Rebecca Hall. She’s hard to grasp, fleeting and soft, a magnet of unkind and dishonest male archetypes. However, without Edgerton, the movie would not exist. An addition to the credits of Blumhouse Productions, The Gift survives off of the company’s ability to manage a tight bottom line, hence giving the helmer creative control without sacrificing too much money should it fail. Edgerton clearly knows what he’s doing as a writer, having written the story that lead to last year’s The Rover. And we all know his strength as an actor. He’s one of the best, and here is no exception. But I could not believe his competence behind the camera. Edgerton knows when to hold and when to divert, when to challenge and when to submit. The Gift is not always tight but always remains thoroughly taught. It’s a slow-motion, direct collision with the truth on a bridge of burned lies. By film’s end you won’t know which side to take, and that’s a purposeful tactic.
We have to ask ourselves, “Is Robyn collateral damage?” That is for your own judgement. However, the last act defies the brilliance and unbeknownst qualities of its previous pieces, like a dust storm that eventually settles. The Gift is an intelligent look at the psychology of bullying, the process of coping, and the journey to change. Along the way we lose the sharp insight, the cruel insincerity that these characters, almost too human for their own good, lose in a final act of questionable passive aggressive behavior. It plays like Inception, spinning its totem, not allowing us to be in on the whodunnit. But that’s not the initial setup. This succeeds in its beginning because it forces our consent; it doesn’t take no for an answer. The final image is a gossip worthy maybe. And despite that, even those averse to change will appreciate the surprises in The Gift, entirely because it’s not happening to them. Here is voyeurism in its 21st Century sensibilities: withdrawn and distant.
“It’s amazing how an idea can take hold.”
Rating: 4 out of 5