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The dog days soon will be upon us, and with them the dregs of American cinema dumped unceremoniously into the local multiplex. But you could do a lot worse than The Gift, a creepy, crafty throwback to early ’90s stalker thrillers like Pacific Heights, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Single White Female and Unlawful Entry. Taken on its own undemanding terms and considered within its not very original framework, Joel Edgerton’s feature-length directorial debut is a pleasant — or pleasantly unpleasant — surprise, hitting its genre marks in brisk, unfussy fashion and raising a few hairs on the back of your neck along the way. It’s comfort food for fans of films in which mysterious presents appear on doorsteps, beloved pets go ominously missing, and an attractive woman taking a shower is the surest sign that something wicked this way comes.
Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall play Simon and Robyn, recently relocated from Chicago to a spacious modern house nestled in the hills of L.A.’s East Side. Robyn is recovering from a miscarriage and subsequent depression; Simon is climbing the corporate ladder at a new job.
Refreshingly free of expository frills, The Gift gets right down to business with Simon and Robyn running into an old high school classmate of Simon’s, the amusingly named Gordo (Edgerton, sporting orange-ish hair, an earring and ill-fitting flannel), at a store. “That was awkward,” Simon whispers to Robyn as they walk away, but soon enough Gordo is invited for dinner and the three are exchanging pleasantries over plates of pasta in a quietly unnerving scene shot mostly in alternating facial close-ups.
Things get weird, as they always do when a quirky outsider bonds with a couple of shiny, happy yuppies in these films. It starts innocuously enough with a bottle of wine sent as a thank-you, then takes a more unusual turn when fish appear in Simon and Robin’s once-empty backyard mini-pond. Before long, Gordo has turned into an incorrigible unwanted-gift giver, violating all codes of new-friend etiquette and prompting the slick, somewhat snarky Simon to nickname him “Weirdo.”
The gentler, more melancholy Robyn is not as quick to write him off, seeming to relate on some unspoken level to his oddballness and air of vulnerability. Still, when it becomes irrefutably clear that Gordo has developed an unhealthy fixation on them — and is a pathological liar to boot — even she goes along with her husband’s decision to cut him off. That is, until a letter arrives from Gordo, saying he’s willing to “let bygones be bygones.” Curious about what, exactly, Gordo is referring to — what wrong might Simon have committed against Gordo when they were in school together? — Robyn starts playing detective.
Edgerton, who wrote recent Australian noirs The Square and Felony, has a somewhat cut-and-dry approach to plot and character, and indeed The Gift doesn’t do much with the relationship between Simon and Gordo. The slight frisson of homoeroticism is never teased out (this is no Chuck & Buck, despite broad similarities), and there’s little genuine mystery or depth to the queasy rekindling of the bond between these two men.
But the writer-director knowingly plays on our familiarity with tropes of the genre, both stylistic (smash cuts, insinuating music, scenes that begin with the camera creeping down empty hallways) and narrative (interrupted dinner parties, confrontations in dimly lit parking garages, intrigue related to the main female character’s fertility/maternity) — and just when you peg The Gift as pure pastiche, you notice the film doing things a bit differently. Robyn’s conflicted feelings toward both Gordo and her own husband emerge as the movie’s driving force; what first looks like a typical male-dominated revenge fantasy turns into the story of a woman coming to understand which flaws in her partner she’s willing to live with and which she’s not. Edgerton also slyly alters the template, blurring the lines between villain and victim and building to a bleak, ambiguous denouement rather than the usual bloody cat-and-mouse climax.
The Gift’s dialogue is movie-ish — especially when Simon and Robyn are trading domestic banalities in the kitchen — but not egregiously so. Besides, that kind of corny blather (“There’s just something a bit off about him” and the like) is one of the reassuring pleasures of this kind of film.
The movie also benefits from a trio of sturdy lead performances. Edgerton exudes both menace and fragility, keeping us guessing as to whether Gordo is unraveling or in supreme control. Bateman shifts seamlessly back and forth between affable charmer and sinister snake. And Hall’s watchful intelligence and reserve make her an ideal moral compass and audience surrogate. The small supporting cast features, most notably, Allison Tolman (FX’s Fargo) as a welcoming neighbor and Busy Philipps (Cougar Town) as one of Simon and Robyn’s friends.
The ’90s vibe is reinforced by a conspicuous lack of smartphone use, though the socioeconomic clash implicit in Gordo’s face-off with Simon feels of-the-moment, as does the underlying subtext about bullying and its long-term effects. Still, The Gift isn’t to be taken too seriously; it is, above all, a nasty good time.
Production companies: Blue-Tongue Films, Blumhouse Productions
Writer-director: Joel Edgerton
Producers: Rebecca Yeldham, Jason Blum
Executive producers: Jeanette Brill, Luc Etienne, Couper Samuelson
Cast: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Allison Tolman, Busy Philipps, Beau Knapp, Wendell Pierce, David Denman, Katie Asleton
Cinematographer: Eduard Grau
Production designer: Richard Sherman
Costume designer: Terry Anderson
Editor: Luke Doolan
Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans
Casting: Terri Taylor
Rated R, 108 minutes
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