At first glance it looks exactly like one of those Fatal Attraction knock-offs from the 1990s: What began with a movie about a psychotic mistress soon became a deluge of films about psycho roommates (Single White Female), psycho neighbors (Pacific Heights), psycho co-workers (The Temp), and psycho nannies (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle) — and that’s the vibe I got from The Gift early on. It’s about a psycho who decides to torment someone who used to be mean to him in high school… 25 years earlier. And to a point, that is what The Gift is about. But Joel Edgerton‘s screenplay is actually quite a bit more interesting than what you’d find in yet another permutation of the tired old Fatal Attraction template.
The directorial debut of the acclaimed Australian actor, The Gift follows Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), a well-to-do but plainly lovable married couple who move to California, experience a random encounter with Simon’s odd, old schoolmate Gordon (Edgerton), and invite the guy over for dinner. It doesn’t take long for Simon and Robyn to realize that “Gordo,” while sweet and amiable on the surface, is harboring some dark emotional problems. Simon clearly wants nothing to do with Gordon, but Robyn is a bit more compassionate (and curious) about the guy, so she starts digging around for clues as to how close Simon and Gordon actually were back in high school.
In a more conventional thriller, here’s where the wife would uncover all sort of horrific secrets about Gordon — and then we’d wrap up with a third act full of chases, stabbings, and well-earned vengeance. Fortunately The Gift seems to know that we’d be expecting that sort of material, so it goes in a different direction entirely. It turns out that Gordon’s past is pretty tragic indeed, but it’s what Robyn learns about her husband’s high school years that allows The Gift to shift from a conventional thriller to a psychological mind game.
To say much more would spoil the fun, but what makes The Gift so cool is how it starts out very simply and slowly, and then subtly transforms into a dark, fascinating, challenging thriller about the baser parts of human nature. At first we see Gordon as an external threat, but it gradually becomes clear that Simon is the one we have to worry about. Not to mention poor Robyn, who is torn between being loyal to her husband and accepting the fact that, once upon a time, he did something terrible to a guy who clearly didn’t deserve it.
The cast is sterling across the board. Edgerton strikes a perfect balance between sympathetic and slyly malevolent; Bateman does fantastic work as a cocky yet charming guy who plainly has some issues festering just beneath the surface; and Ms. Hall is simply outstanding, providing the film with its only real source of warmth, vulnerability, and compassion. The supporting cast is equally impressive. Allison Tolman, Tim Griffin, Katie Aselton, and David Denman, for example, provide brief but very effective moments. And when even the simplest of plot exposition scenes are working well, that’s when you know you’re dealing with a good movie.
The Gift is quite a bit smarter, cleverer, and subtly creepier than what one might expect from its premise, and that’s what makes it such an unexpected pleasure. (That it’s also creatively shot, extremely well paced, and calmly ominous throughout certainly doesn’t hurt.) It’s impressive enough when a film avoids the tropes, cliches, and stock conventions found in most thrillers, but it’s doubly satisfying to see a movie that uses our expectations against us, takes a rather daring thematic left turn, and then closes with a gut punch that’s as disturbing as it is oddly poetic.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5 deceptively well-made burritos
Watch our own Clarke Wolfe interview the cast and crew of The Gift!