Words: Rob DeStefano
The Gift had everything working against it. A seemingly boilerplate plot. A few-screws-loose neighbor who gets off on harassing the town’s new couple. An ad campaign teasing a “What’s in the box!?” conceit. And a trailer showcasing more creepy window gazing than anyone could possibly tolerate. Lucky for us, these elements are red-herrings, because writer, director, and star Joel Edgerton has far more in mind than following a checklist of narrative cogs and familiar devices.
We intrude on Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) while they are scouting a modern California house near Simon’s hometown. Standing on opposite sides of a window, Simon etches a heart in his condensation. People who live in glass houses shouldn’t draw hearts.
Robyn is our entry into this story. She’s the outsider, uprooted from their previous Chicago life and without the familiarity and professional network Simon benefits from. Despite her doe-eyes and childbearing goal, there is a quiet turbulence. Perhaps Chicago wasn’t all that smooth. After hardly settling in, Simon runs into a high school classmate Gordon (Edgerton), who he incessantly refers to as “Gordo” with the utmost arrogance. Gordo appears smitten with Robyn and takes it upon himself to forge a friendship with the couple. He shows up at their home unexpectedly with a series of presents – a contact list of reputable locals (landscapers, housekeepers, etc), then a slew of Koi fish. Simon is less than enthused, finding this altruism unsettling, while Robyn errs on the side of naivety. To avoid spoiler territory we can end here.
Good psychological thrillers are few and far between in today’s market. The Gift is surprisingly content on taking its time; the dominos don’t start toppling until a good stretch into its nearly two-hour runtime. This is a bold move for a summer release, but a move that allows us to spend time with these characters and situate ourselves in this messy triangle of deception. Edgerton as screenwriter revels in Simon and Robyn’s dynamic. At a company event, Simon warmly leans into Robyn and tells her how she is his boss. In an adjacent scene, Simon’s actions speak louder than his words.
The film hooked me during a superbly awkward encounter where the couple attends a dinner party at Gordo’s. It’s no surprise the other “guests” cancel last minute, leaving the house to just the three of them, but this evening plays out far stranger and longer than expected. Edgerton doesn’t stray from the tense moments of social clumsiness and builds his suspense through these relationship (romantic and platonic) hiccups. The Gift feels like 80% character drama, 20% thriller. Perhaps a wacked out Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf by way of Gone Girl.
It is not without the popcorn elements of entertainment either. At one point, a woman in my theater threw her hands up in the air (and then started conversing with either the screen or her husband). The film avoids cheap jumps for so long, that when one finally slips, the moviegoers flew back in one concerted leap. It knows when and how to have fun while keeping its focus on marriage, hubris, and paranoia spinning. Its final subversion, however, feels out of touch with the rest of the film. I found it unnecessary and too aggressive. It deflates the carefully earned suspense a bit.
We’ve come to expect solid and convincing performances from these actors by now. Edgerton might be working the hardest here. He’s very good and I think those beady eyes have a lot to do with it. It will be interesting to see where he goes next as a filmmaker.
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