ByBenjamin Marlatt, writer at

Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are an idyllic couple, living their idyllic married life in their brand new idyllic home in California, near where Simon grew up. While out buying things for their new home, they run into Gordo (Joel Edgerton), a former high school classmate of Simon’s, who Simon seems to have forgotten about.

After a series of unannounced visits and mysterious gifts, Simon begins to find his former high school friend a little off-putting but still harmless. However, things escalate once a dark secret from the past is threatened to be revealed.

The Gift is a psychological thriller I went into with neither high or low expectations. Buried behind all the buzz – both good and bad – of Fantastic Four, I noticed last week that it was opening this weekend and fit it into my viewing schedule for the Thursday night early screenings knowing nothing about it other than who’s starring in it and that it’s also the directorial debut of co-star Joel Edgerton. Surprisingly, as many films that I’ve seen this year, especially from Blumhouse Productions who produced The Gift, I hadn’t seen a single trailer for this film. Afterward, I went home and looked it up, and just as I kinda expected, it reeked of those late ’80s/early ’90s stalker thrillers a la Unlawful Entry and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle.

Don’t worry, though. The film isn’t anything like it’s advertised; in fact, it’s one of the best thrillers I’ve seen this year.

On paper, The Gift appears to be no different than many of those upper middle-class stalker films that have now become predictable fodder for Lifetime flicks, and at first writer/director Joel Edgerton has us thinking that’s the path we’re going down. Then he pulls the rug out from under us and winds up delivering a much more thought-provoking story that touches on themes of guilt, past sins (this film perfectly exemplifies the haunting Bible passage “Be sure your sins will find you out.”), and how seemingly small acts, be it from something said or done, can haunt those on both ends of the act. Throughout it all, Edgerton manages to stay two steps ahead of the viewers, proving our expectations wrong every time we think we have things figured out.

Edgerton has already established himself as fine actor in films like Animal Kingdom, Warrior, and Zero Dark Thirty, and has also had experience as a screenwriter, writing The Square and helping David Michod with the story for The Rover. Taking things to the next level behind the camera, Edgerton maneuvers through this story with a keen sense of tone and pacing, ratcheting the tension through tight lingering shots and some of the most awkward conversational pauses you’ll ever sit through.

Even with the two easy jump scares he indulges in, Edgerton creates a palpable, uneasy feeling of mistrust and suspense that leaves a creepy knot in our stomachs.

Aside from a couple small supporting appearances, The Gift rests solely, and comfortably so, on the shoulders of its three primary cast members. With his role, Edgerton could’ve made this a self-aggrandizing glamor project for himself, but he wisely plays every moment of his with eery restraint. The strength of his performance lies in that as much as Gordo has us on edge, there’s pain behind his eyes that makes him much more sympathetic of a character. You don’t know whether you should be giving this guy a hug or running for your life from him. Rebecca Hall also conveys her character’s pain and fear extremely well. She too, like Simon, may find Gordo to be a little odd, but she also strangely relates to him in that he’s a wounded soul just as damaged as she is.

Or perhaps she’s the only one in the room smart enough to play nice and keep herself off his kill list?

Jason Bateman is one of the most dependable comic actors we have today, though his range in comedy isn’t exactly broad. Yes, he can play aloof better than anyone else, but as good as he is at those roles, it’s typically the same role, whether it’s Arrested Development, Extract, Juno or Horrible Bosses. Once in a great while, he’s stepped outside his comfort zone into dramatic territory with Disconnect and even a little bit in Juno. Though his work there was strong, he was only part of an ensemble, unlike here where he’s asked to do much of the heavy lifting, and the result is the strongest performance of his career so far. His trademark charm and charisma is still there, but there’s much more depth to this role. Simon’s likeable and career-driven, with just a touch of ego and a couple not-so-bright moves along the way, but as the movie plays on, more and more layers to him are revealed, and I’ll just leave it at that.

Smart, well-paced and carried with effortless ease by three terrific performances from Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall and Joel Edgerton, The Gift marks an impressive filmmaking debut for Edgerton that hopefully leads to a promising career behind the camera to match the career he’s already enjoying in front of it. Though he’s certainly dealing with a genre that has become more than ho-hum over the years, Edgerton turns it into a taut, gripping, expectations-subverting thriller that is sure to leave viewers unsettled from beginning to end.

I give The Gift an A (★★★½).

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