The Gift (2015) / Thriller-Drama

MPAA Rated: R for language  violence, sexuality, and disturbing content
Running Time: 108 min.

Cast: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Allison Tolman, Tim Griffin, Busy Philipps, Wendell Pierce
Director: Joel Edgerton
Screenplay: Joel Edgerton

Review published August 8, 2015

Jason Bateman (Horrible Bosses 2, This is Where I Leave You) stars as Simon, who has just moved to hometown Los Angeles from Chicago with his wife Robyn (Hall, Transcendence) and St. Bernard, Mr. Bojangles.  Robyn has decided to stay at home to work while Simon heads off to corporate-land due to some unstable moments of paranoia and fear in her past, including the trauma of losing an unborn child before it came to term.  While purchasing some items for their new home, Simon is approached by a man he once went to high school with, Gordon (Edgerton, Exodus: Gods and Kings), and, out of politeness, 'Gordo', as he was once nicknamed in school, is invited over for dinner and to catch up with old times.  Gordo tries to make peace, offering up such gifts as bottles fo wine, and new koi for their pond. Robyn finds him to be nice, if socially awkward, but something about Gordo begins to rub Simon the wrong way, which causes a bit of tension among the three, as well as some unsavory events of the past resurfacing that Robyn senses but can't put her finger on.

Joel Edgerton writes, directs and costars in this offbeat domestic thriller that tinkers with some time-old conventions in ways that provide for interesting moral questions to wrestle with underneath the more traditional suspense beats. Though this is his first full-length feature as a director, Edgerton isn't new to screenwriting, delivering smaller films such as Felony and The Square, in addition to providing the original story that would be used for The Rover.

Edgerton's film is one of the more difficult to review.  If I were to tell you what the movie is about, or some of the things I enjoy most about the film, I run the risk of spoiling the movie for you, so the best advice that I can give you is to watch the film if you're interested with as little knowledge as possible.  I realize that by telling you this, you run the risk of seeing a movie that may not be to your liking, but I do think it is a worthwhile film for fans of suspense thrillers, so if that means you, then you should find it provocative, even if it's not something that will revolutionize the genre by any means.  In fact, it doesn't even try to distance itself from the genre so much as try to open up the mind of the audience to different perspectives on similar sets of circumstances that you might find in many domestic thrillers of the 1990s.

As for the scares, they aren't many -- a couple of well-timed jump-scares -- but the unease that Edgerton creates is palpable from the start and grows increasingly thick as things play out.  If you go to thrillers in order to be scared, this may not be the film for you, but if you like slower burns that manage to get under your skin and fester, The Gift will likely deliver on that, even beyond the end credits.

Where The Gift excels is in its acting, with Edgerton getting some very fine-tuned performances out of Bateman, in a rare completely dramatic role, and Hall, who says so much with little dialogue that you can always see in her eyes exactly what she is feeling, especially in how confused the character is from the subtext of conversations that she doesn't entirely grasp. Ditching his Aussie accent for the role, Edgerton is pitch perfect throughout in treading the line between us seeing Gordo as either manipulative or innocent, and that ambivalence will have you shifting your outlook on the film all the way to the very end.  This is not one of those movies where the mask comes off and everyone accepts pre-defined roles of good and evil, as complex characters bring refreshing and nuanced dimensions to what might otherwise be just a gimmicky and derivative plotline.

The Gift isn't a revolutionary psychological thriller, but it does show that there are still new wrinkles that one can apply to an oft-told tale that can provoke thought in between the jumpy scares and unnerving thematic material. By subverting the norm, The Gift often feels fresher than most, even though some of the contrivances and conveniences in the plotline still make it a bit increasingly hard to swallow as it begins to unfold, not to mention adhering to a certain inherent predictability.  At only $5 million budget, it's a small film, perhaps more notable for its actors than its tech specs, but given that it's better than most big-budget Hollywood thrillers that have come out in recent years, it does prove the adage that good things come in small packages.

Qwipster's rating:

2015 Vince Leo