THE GIFT Movie Review – Slyly Subversive Psychological Thriller
The word “yuppie” (young urban professional) may have fallen into relative disuse, but it works as an appropriate description for the surface-perfect, married couple at the center of Joel Edgerton’s (Felony, The Rover, The Square) slyly subversive, suspense-driven directorial debut, The Gift. Harking back to semi-notable, decades old, genre entries like Pacific Heights, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Single White Female, Unlawful Entry, and Fatal Attraction (among others), The Gift offers more than its fair share of pleasures for thrill- and chill-seekers of the horror kind. The horror in The Gift, however, doesn’t appear in the form of a monster, supernatural or otherwise, but as a socially challenged, outwardly friendly loner who may or may not be a dangerous stalker and sociopath with a penchant for the seemingly innocuous gift giving of the title.
When we first meet Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), they’re restarting their professional and personal lives in the Hollywood Hills outside Los Angeles after relocating from Chicago. They fall in love with a large, spacious mid-century modern home with floor-to-ceiling windows on every side (the better to see and be seen, apparently). It’s also perfect for expanding their family of two into three (or more). Spurred by a new job for Simon with a cyber-security company and the potential for rapid promotion, a fresh start for Robyn, a freelance interior designer, and a new beginning for a frayed, strained marriage, everything seems to be back on track for the materially and socially comfortable, upper middle class life (and lifestyle) Simon envisions for himself and Robyn presumably shares.
But a supposedly chance run-in with an old, high-school classmate of Simon’s, Gordo (Edgerton), upends the carefully planned out future Simon and Robyn envisioned for themselves. Socially awkward, but superficially pleasant, Simon and Robyn, trapped by social conventions, find themselves unable to say “no” to Gordo until it’s (probably) too late. Gordo repeatedly appears when Robyn is alone in their fishbowl mid-century modern, offering one gift after another along with a supposedly friendly ear for a lonely, isolated Robyn. As tensions escalate, however, Robyn begins to suspect that Simon and Gordo share a possibly traumatic secret, one Simon refuses to share with, eventually compelling Robyn to turn sleuth to uncover uncomfortable, discomforting truths about Simon’s past, a past that suggests, in a classic Hitchcockian sense, that we don’t truly and may never truly know the people closest to us. We all wear masks and personas dictated, shaped by, and driven by the combination of social mores and individual desires.
While The Gift unfolds like a conventional psychological thriller (e.g., Gordo’s increasingly aggressive behavior, a disappearing dog, a shadowy figure who slips inside Simon and Robyn’s home while she’s showering), it also upends those conventions, shifting roles and assignations from victim to persecutor and (possibly) back again, with Robyn’s loyalty and allegiance the narrative hook that spins The Gift into surprisingly unpredictable, but no less focused, directions. In Gordo, a low-status male with no visible means of financial support, ill-fitting, dated clothes, an equally outdated goatee and earring (not to mention a pinkie ring), Edgerton has a character who functions at various times as villain and catalyst (for Robyn and to a lesser extent, Simon). He’s a creep, a stalker, but he’s also emotionally damaged and not completely unsympathetic.
Simon, on the other hand, emerges as something else entirely: Possibly amoral, a sociopath and bully (maybe), in essence and effect a walking, talking stand-in for a particular breed of grasping white male. It’s unfortunate, however, that Edgerton errs (for some moviegoers, grievously) in his third-act treatment of Robyn as a figurative and literal object of desire — and her body, the site of that desire — for Simon and Gordo that goes far beyond what side she ultimately picks between Simon and Gordo (if she picks a side at all). Misstep aside, however, Edgerton knows genre conventions and tropes inside out. Knowing both means he knows what moviegoers, including critics, expect and how to manipulate those expectations for suspense and surprise, not to mention the occasional shock audiences want and expect from psychological thrillers.