MOVIE REVIEW: The Gift
"THE GIFT"-- 4 STARS
Movies are the place of fantasy where the realities of normal domestic life can be bent and distorted. In the genre of thrillers, that quality can swing from peaks like "Rosemary's Baby" and "Fatal Attraction" to the gutter of cheesy TV films on the Lifetime Channel. Independent of their quality is their suspension of disbelief towards the fictional elements of each film. Some movies do too much and descend towards ridiculousness from a sharp premise that is supposed to hook us in. Every now and then, a mystery/thriller hits the right chords to haunt you just enough to be both harrowing and still tangible.
In his directorial debut, actor and writer Joel Edgerton ("Warrior," "Zero Dark Thirty," "Exodus: Gods and Kings") has struck the right nerves with "The Gift." Wholly calculated and far smarter than its slasher flick marketing, "The Gift" exudes a slow boiling creepiness that, for the most part, doesn't jump the shark or digress into that aforementioned gutter of cheese. It's not the instant mindfuck classic on the level with "The One I Love" from last summer, but this little thriller is the right gut punch this summer was missing underneath all of the blockbuster spectacle.
Jason Bateman, playing it straight to leave his go-to comedy forte behind, and Rebecca Hall ("The Prestige," "The Town") play Simon and Robyn Callen. They are a married couple who have recently moved from Chicago to a trendy Los Angeles suburb to follow Simon's big new job. Before coming to L.A., the couple weathered a miscarriage while trying to start a family that has clearly shaken their bond and confidence. That is especially so for Robyn, who works from home as an art designer and has battled bouts of depression from that isolation and the stress of pregnancy.
While out shopping and settling into their new home, a meek man named Gordon Moseley (Edgerton) stops the couple because he recognizes Simon. As it turns out, Gordon and Simon are former high school classmates. Without knowing anyone in the area, the Callens invite him for dinner to be cordial and catch up. Gordon's troubling and odd disposition and background triggers distaste in the callous Simon and benevolence from the endearing Robyn. She sees a wounded guy who needs a friend and means well. Simon, by contrast, is creeped out by his seemingly innocent, yet intrusive, "gifts" and his doting presence towards Robyn. The friendship becomes one-sided and uncomfortable. Limits get pushed, worry increases, unburied hatchets show up, and all three people shift their stances in overreaction to create what blossoms as great conflict.
This kind of role is an excellent departure for Jason Bateman and a reminder that the guy can play just about anything if you let him. He needs to do more of this and less of "Horrible Bosses." Rebecca Hall maintains a high road that keeps her from being the stereotypical victim or worthless spouse that saddles other female casting in lesser films. The straw that stirs the drink is the three-headed monster of Joel Edgerton. Behind the camera, Joel's shot work, staging, and deft writing instill "The Gift" with plenty of style and craft. On screen, the twisted narrative hinges on his performance as "Gordo, the Weirdo." It would be really easy to overact a role such as that and chew scenery for unrealistic and overt showmanship. Instead, Edgerton constantly underplays to sell the ambiguity on whether he is friend or foe. That's the exact right tone "The Gift" needed to have to be successful.
"The Gift" is rated R only for language, so don't buy the poster's blackness and the trailer's hype that this is some wasteful slasher flick. Edgerton and company understand like Hitchcock did that the suggestion or implication of menace and violence is always stronger than any obscene display of either trait. Point of fact, Edgerton listed "Fatal Attraction" and Hitchcock's works as direct influences for "The Gift." He picked winners.
A dropped hint that makes you picture and think rattles your cage better than the gaudy exploitation. With that strength in mind "The Gift" marches to a deliberately ambiguous pace and the tension tightens nicely. All three characters are more than they seem. Not everyone is telling the truth or the whole story. The dark revelations that occur reverberate and will keep you guessing. Admittedly, the ending takes a turn for a disbelief and surreal, but the beauty is in the metaphorical chase to get to that point. "The Gift" burns coldly and darkly and will stick with after you leave your seats.
LESSON #1: MAKE IT A POINT TO REMEMBER YOUR OLD CLASSMATES-- Add the clause "especially the ones you may or may not have significant history with" to that lesson title for more detail. Sure, we all grow up and move on from our youth, but don't feign that you forget key parts of your history, especially to the classmate standing before you in question. You can forget the little things with age, but don't forget the big things. That would be awkward and more than a little dickish too on your part. Full admittance and disclosure beats secrecy and hiding, especially to your spouse. Heck, that last part is almost it's own bonus lesson.
LESSON #2: WHEN SOMEONE SAYS "LET'S LET BYGONES BE BYGONES," THEY RARELY EVER MEAN IT AND CERTAINLY AREN'T GOING TO ACTUALLY FORGET-- Spinning out of Lesson #1, past histories and indiscretions do indeed belong in the past, as long those moments and mistakes were giving closure. They won't be forgotten. Mistake never really are. However, those misdeeds and old flaws can be accepted either through understanding, apology, personal change, or a mixture of all three. To really "let bygones be bygones," it takes humility, maturity, and communication from both parties or sides. When one side isn't willing, nothing is solved and the acidic taste and poisonous ideas keep eating away at the real problem, making matters worse instead of better.
LESSON #3: THE SLIPPERY SLOPE OF GIVING AND ACCEPTING GIFTS-- There needs to be a level of both tolerance and respect that goes both ways. Some people are good at this and others are not. Forced and unforced feelings of obligation, graciousness, appreciation, overstated welcomes, taken offenses, and returned favors all get muddled together as soon as someone doesn't feel comfortable with the said gift, whatever it may be. Establish your limits and boundaries early and abide by them. Give yourself outs to say no before things turn into a movie like "The Gift."