“You think you’re done with the past, but the past is not done with you.”
The Gift is an intense psychological thriller, which was released worldwide a little earlier this month. It plays with the themes of karma, and the sins of the past coming back to haunt you later. It’s an intriguing little film, and one that I think will take a lot of people by surprise.
This is one of those films that might go quietly unnoticed by many. It’s not a sequel or a remake. It’s not adapted from a young adult novel. There are no superheroes anywhere to be seen. It’s exactly the kind of film that can get lost in the shuffle during the summer months, when there’s a major blockbuster released every other week. But if you’re thinking of going to the pictures over the next few days, you might want to check this one out. The verdict is well and truly in on Fantastic Four; it turns out we were all justified in our scepticism. Rather than putting yourself through that, why not take a chance on something new?
The premise of The Gift is simple, even to the point of seeming familiar. Married couple Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have just moved to Los Angeles, close to where Simon grew up. The young couple soon have a chance encounter with Gordo (Joel Edgerton), an old high school acquaintance of Simon’s. Gordo tries a little too hard to strike up a friendship with the couple, leaving them gifts and appearing at their house uninvited. Robyn puts these actions down to social awkwardness, while Simon finds Gordo creepy and thinks he has a crush on Robyn. Gordo’s intentions aren’t entirely clear to the viewer, but it’s impossible to shake the idea that there’s something sinister going on.
Based on that description, it would be easy to dismiss The Gift as derivative or clichéd. But that would be giving the film far too little credit. While the trappings of the film seem familiar, the script uses these familiar tropes to subvert the audience’s expectations and keep us guessing. We have seen these ingredients countless times in the thriller genre, but The Gift manages to combine them in a way that feels fresh and exciting.
This is not a spoiler review, so I’m not going to give away any more than the trailers have. But in short, as the film progresses we learn that this perfect couple isn’t entirely perfect. We are forced to ponder whether there’s something shady about Simon and/or Robyn, and if Gordo is even the creepiest of the three. This seed is planted relatively early in the film, but the script still does a fantastic job of keeping things unpredictable right until the final moments. The Gift does not rely on any huge plot twists to surprise the viewer. It simply drip-feeds us more and more information about the characters over time, allowing us to gradually form a more complete impression of what’s really going on. It’s a very adept bit of script writing.
The script was written by Joel Edgerton, who pulled triple duty on The Gift. Along with writing the script and playing the role of Gordo, he was also the director of the film. This was actually Edgerton’s directorial debut, and it’s a thoroughly impressive first outing. He manages to infuse a sense of dread into The Gift right from the opening scene. Before anything strange or suspicious even happens in the story, things just don’t feel quite right. Simon and Robyn’s huge house and its environs are shot in a way that reflects the couple themselves: beautiful yet unsettling.
Edgerton doesn’t rely on too many cheap tricks in order to keep the audience’s heart rate up either. The film is light on jump scares, though there are a couple that might make you fly out of your seat. For the most part the tension is created slowly through camera movement, a subtle score, and the facial expressions of the actors.
Crucially, the acting is top notch. While there are a number of more minor characters, the only characters that receive much screen time are Simon, Robyn and Gordo. In order for the viewer to truly invest in the film, it’s of vital importance that the three central performances work. Thankfully, that is certainly the case here.
Edgerton is the perfect fit as “Gordo the Weirdo”. He walks a fine line between coming across as just socially awkward or genuinely creepy. Edgerton’s performance makes Gordo as inscrutable to the audience as to the other characters in the film.
Jason Bateman turns out to be the ideal choice for Simon. He brings a little more nuance and conviction to this role than might be expected of him, based on some of his other recent films. However, in some ways this is the kind of character that Bateman has played many times before. Much like in his career-defining role as Michael Bluth in Arrested Development, in this film he plays someone who considers himself a nice guy, but before long the audience sees through his act and realises that he’s an asshole, just like everyone else.
Rebecca Hall rounds out the trio, and she’s really the glue that holds the film together. Though truthfully all the performances are understated, hers is perhaps even more so. For the majority of the film, she’s the closest thing to a truly sympathetic character or an audience surrogate. She’s probably also the most relatable character of the three, though much like everyone else in The Gift, there’s more to her than meets the eye.
There’s really not much else that I can say about the film without giving something away, and I don’t want to do that. Personally, spoilers rarely have an impact on my enjoyment of a film; good storytelling is going to shine through no matter what. I’m sure that’s the case with The Gift also, but this is one film where I was really glad that I knew very little about it ahead of time. There’s something very satisfying about watching this particular mystery unfurling before your eyes.
For anyone who has any inclination towards films of this genre, I’d recommend you to give The Gift a shot. If thrillers aren’t really your cup of tea … well, maybe take a chance on it anyway. What do you have to lose?
RATING (out of 100): 84, “Exceptional”
Steve Hanley is an editor and co-founder of NovaCritic.com.