The trailers for The Gift would have you believe that actor Joel Edgerton’s debut feature as writer and director is a horror movie in which the source of fear is a man gone insane. But the actual movie is a little harder to pin down. There are conventionally scary moments in The Gift – watch out whenever Robyn (Rebecca Hall) takes a shower or turns her back to the camera – but what’s truly frightening about this story becomes clear only gradually.
Robyn, an interior designer from Chicago, is married to Simon (Jason Bateman), a clean-cut software programmer from the Los Angeles area. The couple moves back to Los Angeles so Simon can start a new job. In the process of buying the furnishings for their lavish new home, they come across Gordon Mosley (Edgerton), nicknamed “Gordo,” who claims to know Simon from high school. Simon balks initially, but after a few minutes he realizes who he’s talking to.
The chance encounter ends with Gordo giving the couple his phone number and Simon assuring him that they’ll call when they’re less busy, even as he knows he probably never will and doesn’t want to. It’s the first, but not the last, instance of Simon saying something nice and not meaning it.
So Simon and Robyn return to their abode, which appears chilly even in sunny Los Angeles. And sure enough, they haven’t seen the last of Gordo. He returns to the house with a gift-wrapped bottle of wine, then again to help fix the cable, then an invitation to his home for a dinner party, and so on. Robyn, the more open-minded of the pair, takes pity on Gordo, who seems lost or at least lonely. But Simon isn’t charmed, especially when he begins to suspect Gordo has taken an interest in Robyn.
Most of this set-up is in the trailer. What follows is not the binary I expected. For one, the movie understands where a lesser movie might not that Simon, especially as played with relaxed callousness by Bateman, is not an especially lovable or caring person, and that the relationship between him and Robyn is fraught. Gordo doesn’t create the tension between them – he exposes it. And it’s not as simple as a love triangle or a crime of passion. The dance is not only between Gordo and the couple, but also between Simon and Robyn themselves, whose past is not quite the idyll that they try to pretend it is.
This movie is an odd but satisfying vehicle for Edgerton, who’s turned in strong supporting work in everything from Zero Dark Thirty to The Great Gatsby for the past few years, but doesn’t really seem cut out for the kind of leading man roles of a DiCaprio or a Damon. He gets to play the movie’s most inscrutable role, and brings a convincing nervous energy to a man who clearly has something strange going on in his life, if not the particular strange things that Simon or Robyn suspect. But Edgerton also deftly wrangles a tricky balance in his screenplay, keeping the audience guessing without sacrificing the character development necessary to make the guessing add up to something larger. And his directorial eye is polished and sophisticated, particularly in the way he frames Simon and Robyn against the too-airy-for-their-own-good interiors of their new home.
As with most movies of this type, The Gift layers on one or two or maybe even three too many twists in its final act, straining credulity for the sake of slightly cheaper gasps of recognition. But the note of ambiguity at the end of the final sequence is a welcome respite after thirty or so minutes of complication piling atop complication. The movie resolves its central mysteries but leaves the deeper questions – about relationships, generosity, humanity’s capacity for change – up for interpretation. It points the way toward an eclectic future for Edgerton, provides a rare dramatic vehicle for Bateman and showcases an unexpected range from Hall, who brings Robyn’s inner turmoil to riveting life. Flashy trailer aside, in a summer rife with the usual parade of extraordinary superheroes, the ordinary non-heroes of The Gift stand out.