Movie Review: The Gift by Joel Edgerton

RUUD RATING
The Gift
3 TENNYSONS

Simon (Jason Bateman) is a sales representative for a network security company that has just moved him from Chicago to California with his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall), an interior designer who has left her old job behind and hopes to start a family with Simon—a new start after a miscarriage and a subsequent period of self-medicated drug dependency. The couple has a chance encounter with an old high school classmate of Simon’s, a socially awkward character named Gordo. Played by Joel Edgerton (“Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Great Gatsby,” et al.), who also wrote and directed the film, Gordo begins to bring the couple unwanted gifts, intrudes on their space, and wheedles his way into their lives to what ultimately becomes an unwelcome, then even a harrowing, extent.

If this scenario sounds familiar, it should. 1987’s Fatal Attraction ushered in a whole genre of films about tormenting stalkers terrorizing young couples or defenseless women. Films like Single White Female, The Hand the Rocks the Cradle, Pacific Heights and Sleeping with the Enemy followed in rapid succession. The popularity of the genre waned after the mid-nineties, but Edgerton brings back a film with the same basic structure. So is there any reason you should go to this movie, or have you seen it all before?

Edgerton’s script plays with the conventions of the genre, but takes a number of unexpected turns, just when you’re getting comfortable. The chief clue that things are going to get real is Gordo’s comment that he was willing to let “bygones be bygones.” What on earth does he mean by that? You are supposed to wonder at that, just as Robyn does. But Robyn is back on drugs, so how much can she trust her own instincts? On the other hand, Simon is defensive and clearly hiding something. What on earth is it?

Obviously this is the sort of film where I can’t say much of anything beyond setting up the basic situation, since it’s a thriller and a mystery. Suffice to say that one of the themes of the film seems to be that no one is innocent—that things happen to us that are the results of our own prior deeds, and that taking responsibility for those deeds is the wisest course of action. But another theme of the film seems to be that people do not really change. These are characters who knew one another in high school, and their relationship twenty years later is predetermined by their relationship at that time. Somebody who was a complete jerk in high school is still going to be a complete jerk in later life despite any façade he may have put on to mask that core self.

Bateman is brilliant as the outwardly charming Simon, who wants to give the impression of being completely in control of everything, including himself, though it is clear that he pretty much always thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room, and cannot always control his impatience. Bateman, as usual, makes everything look easy, and his complex performance seems so effortless that he just seems to be playing himself. But he’s not.

Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona, The Town, Iron Man III) is convincing as the fragile, damaged wife, sympathetic to the awkward Gordo but submissive to her husband even when we can see that he’s stepping on her freedom to think for herself—or is he simply protecting her from her weaknesses? And what about Gordo? Edgerton takes on the challenging role himself, gives himself a bad haircut and unflattering goatee, and is skittish and needy enough to make most people want to find something else to do two minutes after meeting him. But Gordo the Weirdo, as Simon calls him, is not a simple psychotic stalker. His motives are more subtle, and his actions more ambiguous, than the Glenn Closes and Michael Keatons of those thrillers of the eighties and nineties.

“You think you’re done with the past,” Gordo says. “But the past isn’t done with you”—a sound bite that encapsulates the film. It’s one that will surprise you at a number of turns, and leave you guessing at the end. Three solid Tennysons for this one.

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