At its core, The Gift is an ugly film. This sounds like a bad thing to say about something but in this case this is what makes The Gift so great. You may have watched the sub-par trailers and looked at the forgettable title and expected your average stalker thriller but this film will surprise you right from the opening minutes due to how quiet and natural everything feels. Star and director Joel Edgerton’s film debut creeps up on you and before you even know what hit you; you’re sinking deeper and deeper into this brutal story about terrible people and the horrific, unchangeable consequences of their sins.
This movie reminds me a lot of Gone Girl or Ex Machina in that it’s much easier to talk about this film if I reveal plot points that are meant to shock in the film. I’ll try not to spoil anything here but I think you’d have a far superior viewing experience without knowing the synopsis or seeing the trailer. If you have even an inkling of interest in watching this movie, go in blind and then come back to this review. Trust me, you’ll thank me later.
Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are newlyweds moving to California for Simon’s new job. The area is near the place where Simon grew up and as it happens, he comes across Gordo (Joel Edgerton), an old student he knew from high school. At first everything seems fine and Robyn even seems to enjoy his company but after a while he begins to show another side that may be much more sinister. After Simon asks Gordo to leave them alone, odd things start happening around the area and they start receiving letters that reveal that Simon’s past history with Gordo might be much crueler than first expected. Simon must come to terms with what he has done if he wishes to save his life.
This movie tries to discuss two major topics, the first being of the quiet intensity of life in the suburbs. This idea might remind many of you of the amazing Gone Girl from last year in how it took these two seemingly happy people living the perfect life in the usual neighborhood and transformed there vices into something insane and grandiose. The Gift is far less satirical and much more subtle and creepy in how it dissects this hidden rage.
Robyn is a designer who has to leave her job to become Simon’s stay at home wife while he’s away at work. We find out half way through that she has had mental issues in the past and she has a problem with taking too many pills. Simon doesn’t take her job, her opinions or her issues seriously and it’s clear that even though Robyn is trying as hard as she can to be happy with this lifestyle, she feels trapped in a cage. She feels the pressure to be this simple person her husband wants her to be and she is equally horrified that she might not be that person and that she might be transformed into that person.
When Gordo shows up in her life, he provides her with an escape from a variety of things. Firstly, Gordo allows her to communicate with a person beyond the bubble who doesn’t behave or respond like the seemingly simple couples Simon talks to at their house parties. She seems him as this mystery that keeps her from being focused on this set in stone lifestyle she seems to be leading. Secondly, his appearance also allows for her to release some of the anger she’s been hiding about Simon. Gordo and his hidden past with Simon gives her a reason to be suspicious of her husband and it allows her to see him for what he really is. He allows for her to rip apart Simon in a way she’s been afraid to for such a long time and its fascinating watching her discontent for everyone surface in the form of their odd friendship. In this, The Gift exposes disillusionment and discomfort within suburban life.
For his directing debut, Edgerton goes a long way technically to express these feelings Robyn has to the audience. He does a great job keeping the soundtrack from being too loud and flashy, he keeps on shots for an uncomfortably long period of time and he shoots the house from her perspective in this way that makes you feel like someone might be secretly watching her at every second. Through this, he not only makes a scary looking thriller but he also presents the claustrophobia in her life and the feeling of paranoia she has about everyone. There was some points in this movie that reminded of the way Amour used long shots and lack of music to put the audience into this place of near hell. It does a great job making you feel uncomfortable with her as she has to face this variety of things that seem out to get her whether it be Gordo or her husband or the repressed neighbors.
The other thing this film tackles is the way a sin from the past can morph into something far worse over time. As you might’ve guessed, Simon isn’t exactly the heroic type who bravely protects his wife and takes down the bad guy. There are numerous points where Gordo is a much more sympathetic person than Simon. Robyn goes snooping around and discovers that Simon was the school yard bully when he was in high school. Gordo is creepy but regardless Simon is a monster in his own rights. He is shown to be willing to destroy lives to get what he wants and he takes some sort of pleasure in crushing people who he sees as worse than him. Without saying here what he did to Gordo, Simon did something that ruined that basically his life and made him an outcast to society. You could almost say that Gordo is the creature built from his bad deeds sent out to destroy him. In a twist ending that is as shocking as it is disturbing, Gordo puts Simon in almost the same position he put Gordo in years ago. Simon has to live with this mystery that destroys his dreams and the pride he fought for. The movie ends by blurring the lines between victim and offender to the point where both Gordo and Simon are terrible, destroyed people who went past the point of no return.
The Gift additionally has three terrific lead performances. Rebecca Hall always seems to give a good performance in sloppy films so for once it’s great to see her talents used in such a top notch movie. She has to play the most sympathetic and relatable character in the movie and her performance captures the uncertainty and anxiety of the audience as we all try to figure who’s doing what and who to trust. Joel Edgerton definitely has the easiest part to play but he delivers it in a way that’s inspired. The crazy person he creates here is different because he’s a creepy wacko who also happens to be sympathetic and even at times normal. He can be scary but in other points you can also tell that he has a sad past and you can even see him as someone who might even come off as somewhat pleasant if you were to maybe talk to them for only two minutes or so, he’s manages to go back and forth between intimidating and pathetic.
However, I have to give the edge to Jason Bateman as Simon for the best of this ensemble. You’ve seen him before in great comedy work but this is definitely his most serious work to date. It’s been a while since I’ve seen such an honest and raw portrayal of a bad person. Bateman brings a touch of humor and charm to the part and at first you can even see how a girl like Robyn could fall for someone like him. What makes this part so different is how the film very slowly pulls off his cool, confident exterior to reveal this egocentric animal that is driven by greed and selfishness. He’s not doing things as blatantly freaky as Gordo but this guy is deeply unlikable in a way that’s grounded and true to real life. He’s the bully who grew up and became successful. And even when he’s being terrible, there’s still the sense that this is still a human being. In one of my favorite scenes, Simon does a horrible thing and he then goes and breaks down in front of his wife as though he just realizes how unchangeable and how messed up he really is. Much like Edgerton, Bateman plays it in a way that makes it seem like a realistically dangerous person you could imagine meeting in real life, he’s certainly evil yet he manages to still make him a little sympathetic.
As for some complaints, I think I would’ve liked to see more of Robyn’s character near the end of the film. In the last ten minutes, the film becomes more about Simon and Gordo’s arc rather than hers and a little bit of the sense of her as this guide for the audience is lost near the ending as she becomes this giant pawn in the messed up game between the two of them. You also need to recognize that this flick is a very slow movement towards a dark, bitter finale and there’s nothing about the ending that will leave you satisfied or pleased. The moment never comes where someone realizes there wrong doings or gets to leave the scene. This isn’t a criticism but it’s more of warning in case you’re expecting something that will have a moment of perfect clarity. So with that said, it’s a film that’s very easy to appreciate and respect but I can’t imagine this being something I will ever feel the need to return to.
Of the things out right now in major theaters, this is the best film you can watch. The Gift makes sure that no one from the characters to the audience leaves happy. This film is a long, twisty road of pain, frustration and fear that never really ends but rather fades into total darkness. There are some great performances from everyone on board and what it has to say about marriage, happiness, history and terrible people is as truthful as it is depressing. Get some soda and some popcorn and sit back and enjoy one of the coldest, grittiest films of the year.
Release Date: 8/7/2015
Directed by: Joel Edgerton
Screenplay by: Joel Edgerton