Movie Review: “The Gift”

Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Busy Philipps
Joel Edgerton

There is a reason that stalker thrillers fell out of vogue: in terms of story structure, even the good ones have a lot in common with the bad ones. It’s a rigid narrative, which means it’s virtually impossible to surprise the audience. Joel Edgerton’s “The Gift” (in which he also stars) falls victim to the same trappings as stalker thrillers past, but only for the first half of the movie. From there, the movie breaks from tradition, offering several pleasant surprises in the process. There are no ‘boo’ moments in the score, and Edgerton’s script is transparent in ways that these films are rarely allowed to be. It’s almost unfair in how the movie is able to have its cake and eat it, too. And the ending will have people buzzing, and most likely wanting to take a shower.

Simon (Jason Bateman) and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have recently moved to California for Simon’s new job. As the two are shopping for furnishings, Simon runs into Gordon (Edgerton), a high school classmate that Simon hasn’t seen since they were teenagers. “Gordo” goes out of his way to be helpful to Simon and Robyn, and leaves multiple gifts for the two at their front door. Robyn is touched by Gordo’s generosity, and can relate to his social awkwardness, but Simon isn’t comfortable with the affection that Gordo lavishes on Robyn, and asks Gordo to leave them alone. Gordo does, but in doing so, he leaves a clue for Robyn that suggests that Simon is not being forthright about his and Gordo’s shared past.

Think of “The Gift” as “The Usual Suspects” in reverse. Rather than being cryptic, the dialogue is demonstrative, but even so, the events to come do not take the path that one would expect. The smartest move Edgerton’s script – and direction – make is their refusal to push the audience to its breaking point. There are unsettling moments, yes, but Edgerton knows better than to constantly threaten the protagonists. That gets old quickly, and burns out the viewer. And as it turns out, to go that route would have been counterproductive to the story’s endgame. This thriller breathes, and is all the better because of it.

Jason Bateman had to have been dancing a jig when he landed this part. He’s delved into more dramatic territory lately, but he gets to do things here that he’s never been allowed to do before, and it’s fascinating to watch. The audience was constantly berating Hall’s character for the kindness she showed to Gordo, but the audience needs to remember that Robyn doesn’t know that she’s in a stalker thriller, and that her actions are quite reasonable. Edgerton, by comparison, had the easiest job. He plays Gordo right down the middle, to maximum effect. It’s good to be the screenwriter, when you’re also the director and one of the lead actors, anyway.

If this review seems unusually short for Bullz-Eye, it’s because the film’s plot prevents us from getting into too much detail, otherwise we would spoil everything, something we are loath to do. Suffice it to say that “The Gift” is, well, a gift at this time of year. It’s a well-crafted thriller that does its job with little fanfare, and forces the audience to ask itself rather pointed questions when the credits roll, as well-made thrillers should.