It’s all in the eyes. In The Gift, Joel Edgerton’s deeply creepy Gordo has dark ones – “black eyes like a doll’s eyes” as Quint from Jaws would say. Gordo’s not an apex predator, although he does forcefully insert himself into the lives of Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall). His motivations are obscured and obfuscated, hidden behind those black pools. And it’s very hard to trust someone like that.
Written and directed by Edgerton himself, The Gift is the kind of movie that people complain aren’t being made any more – smart, thrilling, adult, and wise enough to blessedly not talk down to its audience. It’s been stripped of extraneous elements and is instead full of lean suspense, supported by the type of characters and performances that subvert expectations by not being mind-numbingly dim (i.e. you don’t want to yell at the screen in frustration because the characters split up in times of danger or do anything so bone-headed).
And while there is something of a twisted love triangle at its core, claiming The Gift is a “Fatal Attraction for the 21st century” seems reductive and sells the movie short. The Gift isn’t full of shocks or violence, but what is there is all the more effective for the build up towards the few moments of relief. It’s a thoroughly modern movie, obsessed with class and social structures, but it can also lay claim to stoking primal fears like the fear of someone watching you and the mounting distrust that comes when lies pile up.
Much of that heavy lifting in the beginning is done by a great central location – Simon and Robyn’s new L.A. house. Having relocated from Chicago after an unnamed tragedy, the couple have returned to Simon’s home town to begin a new life and possibly a new family. Their hillside home is framed on all sides by gleaming windows and offers little privacy. At first it lets radiant light in, but soon turns disquieting and becomes a fishbowl of vulnerability as the increasingly pushy Gordo intrudes on their lives.
Gordo as played by Edgerton is wonderfully off. He first spots Simon and Robyn while they’re shopping and gleans their address by overhearing it, later leaving them a house warming gift. Then another. And another. He doesn’t seem to pick up on obvious social cues. While the maternal Robyn takes pity on Gordo, Simon reverts to calling Gordo by his childhood nickname “The Weirdo” behind his back. As Gordo presses in the social contract is broken, and Simon has to clarify that they’re not going to be friends.
It’s basically Curb Your Enthusiasm as a dark psychological thriller. This point is even made salient during a dinner party (The Gift’s equivalent of action scenes, as people verbally spar and dance around their true motivations) when Simon and Robyn’s neighbours reiterate that they should cut Gordo off. It’s a novel conceit to weave in so much social jousting into the fabric of the plot, and it makes for highly effective frisson between the successful Simon and the downtrodden Gordo, who looks up to Simon and may even want his life, his wife, and more.
The central mystery at the heart of The Gift is too good to spoil, but the journey itself and craftsmanship on display is what lends it weight. Edgerton directs with a steady hand and his use of frame is excellent, making for some highly tense scenes. His Gordo is suitably disturbed but not above empathy, shifting audience sympathy as more of his back story is peeled away.
That disorientation is heightened by Robyn’s questionable mental state, making her a potentially unreliable narrator/lead character and meaning that her POV (from which most of the movie takes place) may be compromised. Rebecca Hall plays scared real well and also seems to be slowly morphing into Olivia Williams (maybe it’s the hair?), although that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Jason Bateman plays against type in The Gift, in a purely dramatic role that feels novel but is nonetheless a good fit. His usual smarmy charm is put to good use here and Simon goes through a real arc. At first laser focused on his career but also needing to care for Robyn, Simon has to make difficult decisions about his life and his priorities in the face of mounting danger from the interloper Gordo.
As it goes along The Gift effectively tightens its grip around your throat and ratchets up the tension, with little release, until a stunning finale that will have audiences buzzing. The movie ultimately becomes something of a moral parable, with each of the three main characters put through the wringer in one way or another. It’s slow at times, but for the most part the deliberate pace pays off in spades.
Maybe it’s easy to overstate it’s import, as The Gift seems all too rare nowadays (though I’d suggest that last year’s excellent Blue Ruin is in the same league). It doesn’t have lofty goals or overextend itself in trying to appeal to everyone – it’s simply nuts-and-bolts film making done right.
The Gift (2015)
Directed by Joel Edgerton
Runtime: 108 minutes