The Gift: Factory Wrapped, by David Bax
Actor Joel Edgerton (Animal Kingdom, The Great Gatsby) makes his feature directorial debut with The Gift, a horror thriller that is mostly run of the mill, except when it’s intriguingly not. Unfortunately, Edgerton asks his audience to wait through far too many obvious, telegraphed and recycled plot advancements before pulling the curtain back to reveal a new and interesting take on the familiar ingredients of this type of story. Even more unfortunately, after having seemingly committed to a darker, more psychological and more character-focused direction, he returns to basic schlock in the overblown and credulity straining finale.
Husband and wife Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have just relocated to Los Angeles, near Simon’s hometown. We first meet them as they’re about to buy a new house, one with floor to ceiling windows that would be a stalker’s delight. While shopping for home furnishings one day, they run into Gordo (Edgerton), a high school classmate of Simon’s. It takes Simon a few beats to recognize him but soon Gordo is an insistent, if not entirely welcome, part of their lives, showing up unannounced with presents and obsessing about the past. If you’ve predicted that this rebooted friendship eventually turns menacing, then congratulations on having seen a movie before. About the only surprising thing about the first hour of The Gift is the brazenness of the Gatorade product placement.
For two acts, Edgerton (who also wrote the screenplay) cycles through laughably portentous imagery (like the wind-up monkey toy lifted straight from the VHS cover of Monkeyshines), foreshadowing that’s more like foreblaring (do you think something’s gonna happen to that dog?!) and exhaustive exposition about Robyn’s miscarriage and the couple’s ongoing attempts at conception. The Gift spends so long announcing each development a mile in advance that when it does surprise you, it’s more of a relief than a recalibration.
Edgerton elevates The Gift when he begins to focus less on Gordo’s alarming behavior and more on Simon’s generally arrogant and contemptible manner. It’s not often we get to see Bateman play such an imperious, antagonizing prick but it turns out he excels at it. As conspicuously creepy as Gordo is, it becomes tempting to start sympathizing with him, wondering if things might have gone differently if Simon had just shown a little more compassion. It doesn’t help that almost everyone is on the side of the wealthy and popular guy with the nice house. The only one who has her doubts is Robyn.
Though the story is rooted in the history and interplay between Simon and Gordo, The Gift is at its best when it’s Robyn’s movie, which it thankfully is for a good portion of the runtime. It could be argued that one of the film’s fundamental themes is the experience of being married to an asshole and sharing in the suffering of his consequences. Hall keeps us straddling a line between unease at the actions of an encroaching stranger and tenderness for this wounded weirdo. Some of the credit for that rich ambiguity must also go to the compelling performance of Edgerton.
When Gordo disappears from the proceedings for an extended stretch, he leaves his influence behind. As the specter of this man – be he a villain or just a poor sap – moves Simon and Robyn to pick at one another, The Gift becomes something new, a heightened but pointed examination of the judgments we make about other people, particularly those below us on the social ladder. But then Gordo returns, still belonging to the older version of the movie, and drags it back to its initial, lesser form.