What if Michael Bluth really was a jerk, not just the put upon martyr of the Bluth dynasty? This is the question that “The Gift” tries to answer. Joking aside — though Jason Bateman’s performance really does drift towards his iconic “Arrested Development” character — ”The Gift” is one hell of a throwback thriller. Perfectly, tightly packaged, much like the presents that mysteriously arrive on the doorstep, “The Gift” is a classic, suspenseful psychological drama that harkens back to an older Hollywood (like, the 1990s).
Those gifts start to arrive at the new home of Robyn (Rebecca Hall) and Simon (Bateman) who have relocated to start a new life — new job, new attempt at a family. After running into old school chum, Gordo (Joel Edgerton), in a store, he begins to insinuate himself into their lives one meticulously wrapped package at a time. Simon is instantly suspicious, while Robyn, sympathetic to his social awkwardness, is far more welcoming and forgiving and rationalizes their fears of his stalking over and over. As their interactions with Gordo persist, Simon reveals himself more and more to be a controlling bully, a trait that has followed him since childhood and which colors his history with Gordo.
Writer/director Joel Edgerton has done the impossible, which is make himself profoundly unattractive on screen. From his ginger-dyed mop to his hoop earring to his black shark eyes, Gordo is the epitome of bumbling awkward creep, one you never can tell is malevolent or just innocently clueless. While his performance is spot on, Edgerton’s true talents show in his directing abilities. This is a film without an ounce of fat — it is lean, mean, and effectively suspenseful. Yes, he uses the oldest tricks in the book, and thriller clichés pop up left and right (what is it with women jogging in these movies?). But each of these moments are executed perfectly, and there are some exceptional scares.
The film is beautifully shot with extensive use of practical lamp light either dimming or brightening the rooms. There’s a thematic aesthetic motif around windows and their reflections that adds to the suspense but also serves to elucidate the conflicts between the characters. They are separated by these invisible barriers — barriers that reflect images. But what is real? The perception of the reflection? These windows are used to great effect, both stylistically and in serving the story. The gorgeous modern house itself becomes the fourth player in this chilling dance of power dynamics and paranoia, as they do in most great thrillers.
The film is remarkable in how tightly controlled it is, but as it weaves its way to conflict and resolution, this control reveals itself to be a type of restraint. For all that was promised, there’s a catharsis lacking. But it seems that a violent denouement wouldn’t be what Edgerton would want. He’s much more concerned with the ways in which dark ideas can implant themselves and fester, rotting a person from the inside out. It’s a much darker notion, anyway, and while you might be craving a wild release at the end of this tension-filled ride, the film denies that to the audience, forcing them to ponder much more existential questions instead.
It’s a bit frustrating that Robyn, who is the emotional core of the film throughout, is reduced to a psychological revenge battleground between two men. Though we are in tune with her wants and desires and fears throughout, that gets lost as the battle wages on. At one point, the film seems like it might be moving in the direction of a classic psychological female thriller in the vein of “Bunny Lake is Missing,” or “Repulsion,” where female emotion is pathologized and mocked. But it pulls back on that, as it pulls back on some other tendencies. Unfortunately, it’s not about Robyn’s paranoia and agency — she’s just a pawn.
Bateman gives a fine performance, swiftly and easily turning up and down the sinister edge on his smooth charm. But while the film seems to focus on Hall and Bateman, the true star of “The Gift” is Edgerton as director. His deft, controlled maneuvering of plot, character, style, and tone is damn near perfect for his feature debut — even if it is in service of a very standard genre piece. [B]