What is it about Gordon (Joel Edgerton) that makes him a menace of Peyton Mott caliber? He’s polite, considerate, generous — to offend someone would be his greatest nightmare. He appears down on his luck, an adrift member of society, in search of a friend, a kindly face. He wants to belong somewhere.
But something in Gordon’s eyes suggests otherwise. Beady and cold, they have the gloss of someone with the capability of putting on a front as easily as the kept-secret killer in a slasher movie. One minute, they might look as innocent as a bystander sitting at the edge of a crime scene. But the next, you find yourself wondering if they, in fact, are the person that committed the crime in the first place.
The Gift is a thriller that thrives off threat, not outright violence, and that’s what makes it such an intriguing round of celluloid savvy mind games. Never do we reach the explosive climax we so readily expect. Like in 2005’s Caché (a celebrated French creeper that The Gift’s writer/director, Edgerton, was inspired by), the subtle tingle of a psychological lash is much scarier than any human outburst.
Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall headline as Simon and Robyn Callum, a well-off married couple moving from Chicago to suburban Los Angeles after a near union-wrecking tragedy. A fresh start is the first thing on their minds. And they mostly get one — their home, scenic and luxurious, is ideal for anyone broke with expensive taste; Simon’s new job is fruitful, and Robyn quickly befriends a neighbor (Allison Tolman). Things go awry, though, when they are approached by one of Simon’s supposed high school buddies, Gordon, while out shopping one sunny afternoon.
The meeting is awkward and Simon hopes to never have to worry about bumping into his old acquaintance ever again — “Gordo the Weirdo,” they call him — but his apparent imperviousness to anything marring his successes changes when Gordon begins regularly leaving odd gifts at their doorstep, not to mention visiting Robyn while Simon’s at work. Unsure of what to do, they periodically reciprocate his random acts of kindness, inviting him to dinner and allowing him inside for coffee whenever he pops by with unwanted presents. But his at first innocent obsession with befriending the couple soon becomes a turn-off, and Simon harshly decides it necessary to ask Gordon to leave them alone.
Bad idea. Whether Simon would like to admit it to Robyn or not, his past is dark and Gordon knows it — and all those years ago, Simon was no ally of the former, making him an object of revenge, not friendship rekindling.
The tension of The Gift is wall to wall, represented either through Gordon’s unpredictable appearances or the marital woes which crack Simon and Robyn’s imperfect relationship. Similarly to David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, not even the presence of the sun or a moment of apparent happiness can convince us that the situation isn’t anything but dire — the Callums were already struggling to keep their love for one another alive before they moved to Los Angeles, and Gordon’s persona is a reminder of the scars they can barely manage to scrape off.
The Gift is also Edgerton’s directorial debut, and notable is the way he manages to execute a thrill through secrets, lies, and human interaction, all naturally drawn and all entirely too effective. His performance as Gordon is unsettling, and his leading players, Bateman and Hall, make for an unusually realistic couple, Bateman as the nice guy who may not be so nice and Hall as the concerned wife who realizes much too late just how trapped she is in her situation.
And with a startlingly creepy twist ending, The Gift is escapist entertainment of rare intelligence. Connecting the patience of Hitchcock with the crisp style of Chabrol, I can hardly wait to see what delectable concoction Edgerton will come up with next. B