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The Gift

I’m looking at the new releases this weekend, and the next few weekends after that, and there’s not much to like. Precious few of the upcoming films are exciting enough to be summer blockbusters, intelligent enough to be awards contenders, bad enough for the January/February dumping grounds, or (with the exception of American Ultra) experimental enough for the March/April window.

Yes, this is the season of dull mediocrity that I like to call Craptember. Pickings are going to be slim for a while, which makes this a golden time to catch up on some movies I’ve been meaning to see for weeks.

First up is The Gift, starring Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall. Another star is Joel Edgerton, who also wrote the script, produced the film, and made his directorial debut. Edgerton should be a familiar name as an actor, having appeared in several recent films without ever quite breaking into the A-list. His writing credits are considerably less famous, though he has contributed to a number of lesser-known scripts, such as last year’s impossibly bleak The Rover.

(Side note: It may also be worth noting that another producer is Jason Blum, whose Sinister 2 is out in theaters right now as well.)

The film (which was independently released, I should point out) has already done quite well for itself, racking up a 93 percent Tomatometer and nearly $36 million domestic against a $5 million budget. And I’m glad to report that it is indeed a very good movie.

Though the film does have a few minor supporting roles, there are only three characters really worth mentioning. Our de facto protagonist is Robyn Callen (Rebecca Hall), who’s running some kind of consulting firm in Chicago. But now she’s telecommuting, as her husband (Simon Callen, played by Jason Bateman) has taken a job transfer and moved the both of them to somewhere in Los Angeles. Conveniently, this just happens to be a very short distance from the small town where Simon grew up.

By the way, Simon is working sales for an international security conglomerate. And he’s next in line for a huge promotion. The guy has a great job, a gorgeous wife, and he’s in the process of trying to start a family. Things are going very well (as far as we know). And then Gordo shows up.

Gordon “Gordo” Mosley (Joel Edgerton) is an old high school friend of Simon’s and the two cross paths very quickly. And for whatever strange reason, Gordo seems compelled to ingratiate himself with the Callens. He brings them presents, fixes up their house, invites them over to dinner, and so on and so forth. Permissions and explanations for all of this are neither given nor asked for.

It’s innocent in a way that feels odd, and I’m not just talking about the premise.

We learn a lot about these characters early on, but just as much emphasis is placed on what we don’t learn about them. Gordo is a complete mystery, in large part because it’s hard to tell if he’s just socially awkward or a constant liar. A lot of that also stems from Simon’s mistrust of Gordo, but there’s something in the way Simon talks about his old friend that implies he knows more than he’s letting on.

Even Robyn seems to have her secrets — we learn early on that she was pregnant at one point, but then she mentions something about an “unhappy ending” and a “rough patch” and no further explanation is given for why she presently doesn’t have a kid. On the one hand, of course she wouldn’t want to talk about it. Who would? But on the other hand, Robyn and Simon both go about this past episode like there’s more to the story. Did she have a miscarriage? Did they abort? If either, why?

This movie is all about innuendoes and inferences. It’s all about those miniscule changes in expression and tone of voice. It’s all about the half-truths and flimsy lies, the way characters deflect and dance around questions. Those weird little quirks that could turn out to be entirely innocent, or a sign that something more foul is afoot.

That subtle touch is precisely what makes this film such an effective psychological thriller. It breeds paranoia and compels us to stay and find out what happens. Moreover, the characters are all so nuanced that we’re constantly left guessing what they want, who the bad guy is, or if there even is a bad guy. There are a few times later on when someone starts to toe that line, but the characters are all developed in such a way that even when they say or do horrible things, at least we can understand where they’re coming from.

The lead actors all deserve tremendous credit for playing such tiny little oddities so deftly. Rebecca Hall does a fine job of acting as our impartial observer of the Simon/Gordo interplay, and I don’t think Jason Bateman has ever shown such incredible range before.

But of course the real star here is Joel Edgerton.

As the writer, as the director, and as the star, Edgerton absolutely knocked it out of the park. As Gordo, Edgerton plays his part beautifully. As the writer, he turned in a fantastic screenplay with elegantly developed characters and creative reveals. As the director, he crafted a movie that’s positively dripping with atmosphere from start to finish. All of the scares — from the jump scares to the gradual shocking reveals — work superbly, without exception.

I’m loathe to discuss the film in any greater detail, since so much is caught up in spoilers. Suffice to say that the dominant theme concerns emotional baggage. It’s all about comeuppance, and how sins of the past have a way of coming back no matter how deep we may bury them. In theory, this sounds like a solid premise for a psychological thriller. But in practice, I’m left wondering why the message was conveyed in this way.

The story concerns something that happened when our leads were back in high school, twenty-five years ago. And it never answers the question of how there can be any healthy means of atonement for something that happened so long ago. For argument’s sake, suppose you’re someone in a similar situation. You’re a person of middle age, reminded of some transgression that happened back when you were a teenager. What are you supposed to do with that reminder? What good would this movie do you?

I want to stress that this is only a minor nitpick, and it’s hard for me to make a convincing case when I’m forced to dance around spoilers. I can only say that the film has a very particular message that might do a lot more good if it was directed at a teenaged audience. That’s all I’m saying.

Another nitpick is that as a direct result of the emphasis on subtlety, the film is a slow, slow burn. Through the entire first act, we sit through so many tedious expository scenes about these characters with only the merest hints of conflict or crisis to keep us going. It feels like a century before everything starts coming into focus, but the revelations pile on top of each other very quickly when they finally start.

The Gift is written with subtlety, performed with nuance, and directed with chilling atmosphere. All of that makes for a superb psychological thriller, delivered with suspense and tension to spare. The audience will be left guessing right up until the closing minutes, and that final shock serves as a worthy payoff to a slow burn. If this is what Edgerton can do with his first time in the director’s chair, I’m eager to see what he’ll do for an encore.

It’s not a perfect movie, especially for those with short attention spans, but it’s still absolutely worth a recommendation.

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