At first, The Gift feels like a film you have seen countless times before. A married couple, Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall), move into a new sprawling house. A chance encounter with an old classmate of Simon’s leads to a housewarming gift, which leads to an awkward dinner. Simon is weary of the man, though Robyn is warm to the idea of a new friend and does not know the new friend’s potentially dark past. Though all of this feels familiar, The Gift goes beyond the typical cat-and-mouse chase thriller you may expect and digs into roots and causes of the underlying problem.
Simon and Robyn move into the perfect new house, but it is quickly revealed that their lives are anything but perfect. Moving from Chicago to Los Angeles for Simon’s new flashy job at a start-up, Robyn seems a little off. She is shy when meeting neighbors and Simon’s colleagues, and is trying to rebuild her design business while working at home. When Simon’s old acquaintance Gordo (Joel Edgerton, who also wrote and directed) starts stopping by their new home to bring gifts to the married couple, she seems relieved to have the company. Simon never seems at ease with Gordo, which directly conflicts his repeated assertion that he does not remember anything about him from high school. Without any evidence beyond a bad gut feeling, Simon tries to cut off all contact with the generous if shy Gordo.
Here is where the film could take a turn into the cliché. Gordo could lash out at Simon and Robyn and hurt their dog or destroy their home, but he does not. Edgerton, both as director and as Gordo, toys with the audience expectations here a bit, never tipping the film into horror territory. Instead we get to know the characters a bit more. The presence of actual character development is a welcome distraction, though it comes at the cost of any potential excitement in The Gift.
Given the unanticipated plot of The Gift, the casting in the film is spot-on. Bateman’s warm smile and confidence makes him instantly likeable in nearly every role. As we get to know Simon further we begin to question if we like Simon because of Bateman, or if the character is a good man. Symmetrically we must also examine Gordo both on his manner and his behavior. Sure, the guy seems a little awkward and does not take his jacket off at the dinner table, but does that mean he is not to be trusted? If Simon’s swagger does not necessarily translate into good moral fiber, then The Gift also makes you question if Gordo’s lack of swagger is a sign of trouble.
Robyn is played impeccably by Hall, but sadly is not given much to do. The character is a fully developed woman with rich history and her own personal struggles, but ultimately The Gift is not her story. She is there to react to both Simon and Gordo, but she is almost treated like a prize to be won and not a third equal participant in the onscreen drama. Even with this weakness some of the most compelling parts of The Gift are when Robyn stands up to Simon or is left alone in the giant new house with Gordo.
It is this nuance in approaching the complicated relationship between Simon, Robyn, and Gordo that is the real strength of The Gift. Expecting a thriller or even a horror film is understandable, given the marketing and cinematic precedent, but this film shows that there can be an even more intriguing story beneath that usual one. Exploring character motivation and the histories of complex relationships makes for an unexpected and absorbing film.
Director: Joel Edgerton
Film Length: 100 minutes
Release Date: August 7, 2015
Distributor: STX Entertainment