The Gift is a haunting character drama that successfully incorporates elements of the thriller and psychological horror genres.
Harsh Chicago winters and cramped urban living have taken a toll on Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn’s (Rebecca Hall) marriage. So, when a new job prospect opens up in California, the pair decide to leave the troubles of midwest life behind them, moving to Simon’s childhood hometown, in the hopes of settling down and starting a family. The couple purchase a suburban house, with plenty of room for their dog Jangles, and Robyn begins decorating the new home – while Simon is away at at his 9-5 office job.
Following a chance encounter with one of Simon’s high school classmates, an oddball man named Gordo (Joel Edgerton), Robyn cautiously befriends the local – after Gordo goes out of his way to welcome the couple to California. Despite an awkward disposition, Gordo is helpful and friendly – aiding Robyn in household chores and showering her with thoughtful gifts. However, when Simon voices discomfort with Gordo’s presence around the house, Jangles suddenly disappears: the first of several bizarre events that cause Robyn to question whether her new friend might actually intend to do her harm.
In addition to a starring role, The Gift was also written and directed by Edgerton – marking the award-winning actor’s debut behind the camera. Previously, Edgerton had contributed writing and production work on earlier films (including The Rover and Felony); however, The Gift is an execution of Edgerton’s vision at every stage, from the printed page to the big screen. The result? The Gift is a haunting character drama that successfully incorporates elements of the thriller and psychological horror genres. Certain narrative threads aren’t handled as adeptly as others but The Gift is a competent freshman film – one that is buoyed by solid performances and an intriguing central conflict.
Edgerton’s story borrows heavily from similar entries in the thriller genre – to the extent that some filmgoers may be able to anticipate some of the movie’s biggest twists and turns. Still, Edgerton also plays with expectations and familiar tropes – maintaining a sense of surprise, tension, and dread throughout. The filmmaker’s greatest success is marrying his tale of suspense with relatable real-world insight into marriage, fractured relationships, and life-altering traumas. That’s all to say that even though The Gift relies heavily on its primary mystery (Gordo’s bizarre behavior), the larger movie also tells a worthwhile story of curiosity and consequences.
Simon and Robyn’s marriage is imbued with an authenticity that, even in its most challenging moments, never compromises The Gift‘s efforts in relaying a story of real (and broken) people. While Edgerton is featured on the film’s marketing, Hall is the true star of the movie – putting a fresh spin on a familiar character setup: a stay-at-home wife who struggles with isolation, loneliness, and paranoia. Hall’s work in The Town, Vicky Cristina Barcelona, and The Prestige (not to mention Iron Man 3) has made her a favorite among cinephiles and her talent is put to good use in The Gift – successfully relaying Robyn’s personal insecurity, reckless curiosity, and eventual empowerment with a subtle touch, rather than on-the-nose “acting” and exposition-heavy dialogue.
Bateman is slightly less-nuanced but still successful as Simon – a sweet-talking people-person that becomes less affable as Gordo transitions from eccentric weirdo to a disruptive (and potentially dangerous) threat. Moviegoers who know Bateman from his comedy roles (Arrested Development and Horrible Bosses), as well as quirky supporting characters (Hancock) will find The Gift provides the actor an opportunity to showcase a lesser-known side of his repertoire. The part isn’t going to win Bateman a drama award but, for those who have never seen the actor in a more serious role, The Gift serves as a good reminder that Bateman isn’t a one-trick pony.
Yet, even with a strong turn from Hall, Edgerton is the most interesting aspect of The Gift – depicting Gordo as a creepy but relatable presence. He’s an endearing weirdo that, thanks to a restrained performance and moments of earnest drama, navigates a captivating line as the story unfolds – with equal chance of being socially awkward and misunderstood or menacing and downright homicidal. Considering that Edgerton wrote, directed, and produced the movie, his role within The Gift is refreshingly subtle and understated. Rather than a spotlight stealing character, that many actor-directors would write for themselves, Edgerton leaves plenty of room for his co-stars and the overarching narrative to take center stage.
Beyond a vulnerable performance from Hall and eery turn from Edgerton, the director also differentiates his film from classic thriller inspirations with a restrained and deft cinematic touch. A minimalist approach, The Gift doesn’t present particularly inventive or sophisticated visual language or motifs but it’s still a well-crafted movie – especially for the thriller genre from a freshman director.
Edgerton succeeds with every aspect of his directorial debut – delivering an engrossing story, rich characters, a memorable starring role, and beautiful cinematography that all make The Gift a quality entry in the thriller genre as well as a quality character drama. It’s a dark and disturbing film but not because of the horror-movie tone teased in the film’s trailers; instead, The Gift is most resonant when exploring themes and narrative arcs that explore the real-world fears and insecurities inherent to human relationships. To that end, Edgerton’s film pulls double-duty – as a moment-to-moment mystery with satisfying third-act payoff as well as a poignant, albeit heightened, cautionary tale.
The Gift runs 108 minutes and is Rated R for language. Now playing in theaters.
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