The Gift emerged as one of last summer's modest box office surprises, fueled largely by a twist ending so shocking it apparently couldn't wait for home video. I just caught up with the film, unspoiled, and am confident that the "shocking finale" can, in fact, be seen from space. Don't let that deter you: there's so much more going on in this movie than the trailers or the hype would have you believe.
Writer/star Joel Edgerton's feature directorial debut isn't the millionth riff on Fatal Attraction, though it bears all the hallmarks: A (mostly) happily married couple must contend with an unstable loner who shares a dark secret with the husband. Studious viewers can check mysterious gifts, animal endangerment, and gunplay off their lists, as well as a bleak finale guaranteed to make some fictitious movie therapist very wealthy in the decades to come.
Subtlety sets The Gift apart. Edgerton botches many of the mini-reveals leading up to, and including, the climactic "Gotcha!" moment, but he excels in capturing the unspoken tensions that can splinter a marriage. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn Callum (Rebecca Hall) are a couple on the brink when we meet them. Simon's new high-paying sales position has forced them to relocate to a big city near his hometown. Robyn is a designer who works from home and tries to make the most of putting their house together, while also lamenting their inability to have children. When an old classmate of Simon's, Gordo (Edgerton), enters their lives with his creepy, awkward neediness, he uncaps resentments and secrets in the Callums that are more damaging than any outside threat could incur.
I love that Edgerton, as the creative force behind this production, doesn't fall back on the sub-genre's cheap trappings. Revealing the grisly fate of the nosy neighbor in these kinds of movies is often a spoiler. Well, here's a different kind of spoiler: the neighbor Robyn befriends isn't nosy, and she doesn't die. Allison Tolman's Lucy is a compassionate stay-at-home mom whose presence in the story is always judicious and welcome. Edgerton achieves a similar tone with all his characters, in ways that subvert the "pulse-pounding" impulses that often turn allegedly adult-targeted thrillers into little more than body-count pictures with nicer cars in the driveway.
As the story we think we're supposed to watch unravels, characters' true natures pop and slither out of discarded skins. Simon's upstanding, concerned spouse becomes something else, and Gordo's deranged, obsessed liar turns out to be less (and then more) than we suspected. Only Robyn manages to escape with her core personality intact, but I'd wager Edgerton could put together a nasty little short film centering on a very important conversation she's bound to have with Simon (The Re-Gift?). Like The Usual Suspects (which Edgerton pays figurative and literal homage to, especially in his closing shot), this film demands a re-watch--not just for clues to the ending, but for further signs that Simon and Robyn were combating their troubled past back when we assumed they were a relatively strong couple.
The film's greatest weapon, besides the guts of its screenplay, is the casting of Hall, Bateman, and Edgerton. These are three terrific actors who rarely get to headline big movies. Bateman's beleaguered, powder-blue-collar persona has served him well in Arrested Development and films like Horrible Bosses, but he shows a frightening capacity for duplicity here, turning that affable control-freak facade into a mask and a weapon.
Hall takes a part that may have been conceived with run-of-the-mill vulnerability in mind and makes it into a more complicated, satisfying role. Robyn could have fallen into the long line of lonely, freaked-out homemakers like the ones we've seen in Rosemary's Baby, The Shining, or Se7en, but she has her act together. In an odd way, the conflict with Gordo pushes her out of her child-free funk and reveals (revives?) a kind of Sarah Connor resilience that makes both the men in her life superfluous.
Which brings us to Edgerton. I'm not sure what to make of Gordo, as a character or as a performance. On one hand, he is a deceiver and an actual threat to the Callums. On the other, it's entirely possible that he's simply the manifestation of the couple's unresolved issues. I'm not suggesting there's an Sixth Sense-style trickery at play here--though I can't recall any scenes in which Gordo interacts with characters other than the Callums.*
I appreciate Edgerton's laid-back approach to menace, in front of and behind the camera. The Gift reminds us of the nuance that made him a star (Warrior, for example), and helps put his blockbuster bluster (Black Mass, Exodus: Gods and Kings) into perspective. By substituting vérité for flash, and giving us characters we can hook into regardless of the soapy, climactic twist, Edgerton proves that he's a storyteller and a performer worth paying attention to, the total package.
*Another reason to give this film a second spin.