Stop me if you’ve heard this one… a suspicious character from a man’s past insinuates himself into his life with stalker-like devotion, possibly setting his sexual sights on his lovely wife. Doors are found open, dogs disappear, and the couple’s growing paranoia threatens to destroy them. It’s not a very original scenario, is it? A number of movies have been built around the premise. That’s exactly what I expected from The Gift. Instead, the movie offered a clever and entertaining deconstruction of a familiar plot.
Simon (Jason Bateman) runs into an old high school friend when he and his wife, Robyn (Rebecca Hall), are shopping for their beautiful new suburban California home. Simon barely remembers Gordo (Joel Edgerton) but is soon thanking him for his housewarming gift by inviting him over for dinner. Afterwards, the gifts keep coming and the couple keeps reciprocating, but Simon wants to end their relationship; it’s just a little too weird.
This is where the similarities to any movie you’ve already seen ends. There are other secrets and mysteries to be revealed, very few of which actually come from Gordo himself. You’re never quite sure who’s telling the truth or who someone really is. Details are revealed slowly and deliberately, yet with increasing and palpable suspense. To say it’s a thinking man’s thriller might indicate that the movie is slow or dull, but nothing could be further from the truth.
The cast is terrific, particularly Bateman. At first, his Simon feels familiar; Bateman has played similar characters. But as the story develops, we learn his regular smirking charm might just be the tip of the iceberg for some potentially serious personality flaws. Gordo calls him “Simon Says,” because in school he could make happen whatever he wanted. This trait seems to have carried through to adulthood as he’s on the fast track for a big promotion at work.
Bateman gets to exercise some dramatic chops, also, and he’s quite good. He runs the gamut of emotions from happy to mad to sad. I can’t emphasize enough how talented he is to take the image of who we think Jason Bateman is and reveal so many layers beneath. I’m not sure I will look at him the same in the future. I may feel now that there’s something sinister behind his casual sense of humor or that he always has an ulterior motive.
Hall is great as his wife. She has her own secrets that are revealed sensitively, not sensationally. (In fact, I kept waiting the entire movie for a big, dramatic, contrived twist that never came. That’s how skillfully The Gift is written and directed. To say it’s restrained might indicate it has no action or rhythm, but nothing could be further from the truth.) Bateman and Hall are great together; they seem to have a real connection. The exact nature of their relationship is another mystery to be revealed.
Who is the skillful writer and director of The Gift? It’s Joel Edgerton himself, with a near perfect debut behind the camera. He sets a perfect tone, and knows how and when to disturb that tone for maximum effect. The finale increases the pace and while you might figure out a key plot point before the characters do, it’s rewarding to watch them go through the process. Then, just when you think you have it figured out… you’re not so sure. These are the qualities of a great thriller, and this one’s a real gift.