How much are we like the people we watch in movies? This queasy thought popped in my mind early into The Gift, Joel Edgerton’s very impressive debut as a writer and director, as well as co-star. Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall play Simon and Robyn, a successful but unhappy couple dealing with the heartache of recently losing a child. They move to a new town, where Simon lands a plum job. A random encounter with an old childhood friend, named Gordo (Edgerton), initially creates an awkward new friendship, until Simon comes across as too weird and needy for them to deal with.
One of my favorite thrillers is With a Friend Like Harry… from writer/director Dominic Moll. That 2001 film had a different approach and overall point but a similar hook, with an old acquaintance reappearing decades later and forcing himself into the life of a former schoolmate. Harry had no on-screen violence but still terrified me, playing like a diabolical What About Bob. While The Gift is inferior to Harry, it’s a refreshingly smart, carefully constructed thriller.
A key moment is when Robyn defends Gordo, stating that she can often come across, in her way, as awkwardly as he does. There are unsettling but thoughtful questions raised on whether friendships have an expiration date, what the limits of social niceties are and how far we extend friendship to someone who isn’t a friend, but acts like one.
While there are some nice supporting turns from veteran character actors, like David Denman (he played Roy on The Office) and Wendell Pierce, this is mostly a three-character drama and the three leads are excellent. Bateman, in particular, gives one of the best performances of the year. Aside from his under-appreciated cameo in State of Play, Bateman rarely gets the opportunity to perform outside of comedy and its stunning to see how many nuanced layers he brings to Simon. Hall is a treasure in any role, though she makes Robyn especially touching, when the part could easily have been played as a victim.
Edgerton must have gotten tired of waiting for a great American film role to come his way and just decided to make one for himself. He’s a hard working Australian actor whose good notices in Animal Kingdom only lead to forgettable roles in notable movies (like Baz Luhrman’s The Great Gatsby) or leading parts in failed projects (like the remake of The Thing). Edgerton plays Gordo’s quirks and oddball appearance with too heavy a hand (making the character’s presence too obviously a cause for concern) but, like his co-stars, finds rich opportunities to dig deep and surprise us.
The Gift begins so perfectly, with such a strong grasp on character, mood, meticulously framed visuals, it’s disheartening that the end result isn’t better. Instead, it kept me riveted but falls short of the richly psychological set-up. There are far too many conveniently placed lines of exposition in the dialogue, forcing the plot points rather than gradually revealing them. Adding jump scares and a fake-out dream sequence is another mistake.
The big twist at the end is easy to see coming but still satisfies, as it greatly raises the stakes of the characters and their established relationships. Yet, the movie is at its best when we’re kept in the dark, pondering whether Gordo is harmless or a genuine threat.
Our alliances to the three main characters alter over the course of the story but we’re always meant to sympathize with them and do. At different times, I wondered who I related with the most, which is one of the creepiest things about this mostly satisfying, adult-minded sleeper.