Historically, psychological thrillers about bad neighbors and jilted lovers have typically been pretty disappointing. At their best (Play Misty for Me), they're gripping for most of their running time but turn into formulaic slasher films during the third act. At their worst (The Boy Next Door), they're piles of overheated button-pushing junk. Considering this, it's kind of a shock to observe how elegantly The Gift escapes most of the pitfalls of this subgenre and turns into something genuinely fresh. This is a deeply unsettling movie, largely because it refuses to play by the cliched rules of its similarly-themed predecessors.
Simon (Jason Bateman, Arrested Development) and Robyn Callum (Rebecca Hall, The Town) have just moved to Chicago, and they're preparing to embark on a fairly exciting chapter in their lives: Simon has just gotten a terrific new job, Robyn has some promising career opportunities in front of her, they've just bought a gorgeous new house and they're thinking about starting a family. Things are good, which is never a good sign in movies like this.
As soon as the Callums arrive in town, Simon bumps into Gordon “Gordo” Mosely (Joel Edgerton, Black Mass), an old high school classmate. The encounter is an awkward one (partially due to the fact that they weren't really good friends back in high school, and partially due to the fact that Gordo's social skills seem a little lacking), but Robyn extends a polite dinner invitation and Gordo accepts. The dinner is just as awkward, filled with odd conversational detours and moments of uncomfortable honesty. Robyn thinks Gordo is merely shy and awkward, but Simon is convinced that he's a creep. “You know, we used to call him Gordo the Weirdo,” he says.
The dinner was only intended as a friendly one-time affair, but Gordo seems insistent on continuing the relationship. He repeatedly drops by the house unannounced and offers simple gestures of kindness: filling the empty koi pond with fish, hooking up the new TV, etc. Again, Robyn and Simon are divided on how to interpret these gestures: the former thinks he's a sweet guy doing kind things, and the latter thinks that he's inappropriately crossing personal boundaries in an attempt to seduce Robyn.
The trailers for The Gift presented the film as the story of a psycho plaguing the the lives of an ordinary married couple, but the film itself is considerably more complicated than that. We genuinely aren't sure what to make of Gordo for a very long time, and the disagreements Robyn and Simon have over how to respond to Gordo's actions creates more tension than anything Gordo actually does. In most films along these lines, it's quickly obvious that the “stalker” figure is a creep, because that's the easiest way to ensure that a drama eventually turns into a thriller. The Gift is a more complex affair, increasingly blurring the lines between the protagonists and antagonist and effectively planting seeds of doubt in our mind about what who we're supposed to trust – a structural technique that ends up dovetailing rather elegantly with the film's themes.
It's difficult to say much more about The Gift without giving away too much, but I will say that the film's second half doesn't devolve into the usual display of violent insanity (though violent insanity does occur). It's such a surprise to discover a psychological thriller that actually emphasizes the “psychological” part of that equation, playing a variety of complicated head games with its characters and its audience. The film actually becomes less predictable as it proceeds, which is exciting on one level and unnerving on another.
All of the actors are well-cast, particularly Bateman as the charismatic, confident Simon. Bateman is often cast as a likable everyman, but often as one prone to bouts of smug self-satisfaction. The latter part of that equation gets cranked up here, making subtle tweaks to Bateman's persona to make him a good deal more unpleasant than usual. Simon has a real mean streak lurking beneath the surface, and the film's exploration of that leads to some of its most rewarding scenes (and some of the best acting I've seen from Bateman). On the other side, Hall does a terrific job of essaying a character who feels increasingly uncertain about the situation she's in. Over time, she becomes the film's moral center, trapped between two men who may or may not be capable of doing terrible things to each other.
This is Joel Edgerton's first time in the director's chair, and he seems well aware of what kind of screen presence he has and how to use himself effectively. Edgerton doesn't have the most expressive face in the world, but he uses that blankness in a smart way, turning Gordo into a man who seems to be hiding something but isn't projecting much of anything. Making Gordo a Rorshach drawing of a man is essential to the film's effectiveness, as the actor never uses his performance to nudge our uncertainty in one direction or another. Even by the film's conclusion, when all of the cards are on the table, we're still left with lingering traces of doubt. The film's screenplay feels very much in line with the other films Edgerton has written (most notably The Square and Felony – okay, so titles aren't his strong suit), using a thriller template as an opportunity to explore challenging moral questions.
Edgerton's direction isn't too fancy – like a lot of actor/directors, he seems to put most of his focus on the performances – but there's a classical polish to the film that allows it to stand out in a genre that tends to lean too heavily on overcooked visual ideas. The movie has real tension, making the handful of jump scares it uses count by refusing to overuse them. This isn't a perfect movie (a few late-game plot twists require us to suspend our disbelief just a bit too much), but it's leaps and bounds better than this sort of thing usually is. I like Edgerton as an actor, but I'm far more excited about what he might achieve as a writer/director.
Rating: ★★★½ (out of four)
MPAA Rating: R
Running Time: 108 minutes
Release Year: 2015