Movie Review: The Gift
By Ben Gruchow
August 11, 2015

I am too a viable leading man!

I don’t think it’s at all coincidental, or inappropriate, that The Gift’s first and final shots principally involve characters separated by windows. Those shots, like the movie, are focused on what they represent to the world of the movie’s characters: the illusion of connection and knowledge - you think you know what you’re looking at - and the use of that illusion to deceive and manipulate and hide. Most scenes are shot through a window, a pass-through, a doorway, all of them serving the same purpose of framing a character and isolating them from each other.

It’s far and away the most deliberate stylistic choice in a film not lacking for stylistic choices. The Gift is being marketed as a suspense thriller, which it only sort of is; you can only get to a certain point before you see the runway lights and get a good idea of where the thing’s going to land - that’s assuming, of course, that you either haven’t watched or haven’t internalized the criminally revealing trailers and don’t know even sooner. Once those lights show up, there’s not a whole lot of suspense to be extracted from the scenario, and your enjoyment of the movie depends on how much you enjoy how the thing is going to land instead of where.

At any rate, the story develops with a good deal more nuance than it really needs to in order to make the grade as a solid piece of work, and more than what really ends up being there by the end on a substantive basis. It almost couldn’t help but do this, given that the story beats of The Gift are assembled from absolutely standard potboiler elements: the Dark Past, the Woman in Trouble, the Spouse Who Might Be Crazy, the Marriage in Crisis.

Married couple Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) have just moved back to L.A. after a stint in Chicago; Simon is social, outgoing, while Robyn is introverted and awkward. They possess the outward shape of a happy couple, but it’s pretty easy to guess that their relocation from Chicago was not innocuous - the movie tips its hand about this early enough for it to be an element of the setting and not a surprise reveal, which is a good thing.

The other Dark Past is the one that the main framework of the movie is built around, with writer and first-time director Joel Edgerton taking a starring role as Gordon, an old classmate of Simon’s who just happens to run into both of them pretty much as soon as we do. He is welcoming, helpful, socially awkward. He and Robyn bond, although he and Simon do not. He finds out where they live, and begins leaving gifts for Simon and Robin on their doorstep, usually while they’re out - and increasingly, as Robin is home alone.

It’s to the movie’s credit that these sequences trod ground so well-worn and come off as successful as they do, and it’s an outright surprise that it’s been done with this degree of confidence from a first-time director. The Gift brings us into its world from the first scene, and lays out its cards methodically, patiently, letting scenes build into each other rather than forcing a specific rhythm.

This unhurried temperament gives us some wonderfully naturalistic interplay between Simon and Robin, between Robin and her new neighbors, between Simon and Robin and everyone else; there’s not a word that feels out of place. Even better, we buy into the cadences and tones of the characters so quickly that we have time to admire what The Gift does visually. I’ve already covered the use of windows and openings as barriers and framing devices, a motif that’s done so seamlessly and so consistently that we quickly accept it as part of the fabric of the movie.

Besides this, we have set design that emphasizes the mundane reality of the new house in exactly the right ways, and absolutely gorgeous lighting and cinematography by Eduard Grau. This is the second time recently that a movie fully earns its ultra-wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio. It would have been impressive enough had the camera merely taken advantage of the geometry and space that it does, but then Grau goes and layers everything in soft, dim tones that are both entirely natural and remarkably evocative.

The look of the thing is unimpeachable; a day later, I still find myself remembering certain frames or cuts or a piece of blocking that add a dimension to the scene in which it occurs; Simon’s consistent placement while in conversation - particularly conversation about their strange new acquaintance - always being against empty space is a well-handled example. Edgerton knows what conventions we expect of a genre thriller, particularly when it comes to figures appearing ominously in the background that we can see but the characters can’t, and he exploits this in a way that doesn’t feel cheap or like he’s winking at the audience.

As for what goes on in those conversations: I mentioned that Simon and Robyn’s interaction feels naturalistic, but that doesn’t adequately cover what Jason Bateman does here. The movie’s central scene is a dialogue between him and Robyn; it’s where the movie pivots from being about those potboiler staples to something much more textured and complicated, which has its own drawback. Regardless, his performance here is defensive, nettled, tightly-strung, and very human; it redefines everything his performance has been about up to that point, and reinforces the concept that comedy is harder than drama, and therefore a good comic actor is going to be a better dramatic actor. It’s fantastic work all around, and easily a career best for Bateman.

It’s a good thing The Gift is such an overachiever with its visuals and mood and cast, because it leaves quite a bit on the table as far as following through with its story - not the story it starts out with, but the one it develops into at that pivotal scene. The second half of The Gift is better and more involving than the first, but its trappings and potboiler DNA limit the ending to a narrower range of conclusions than that second half wants to point toward. And while the final twist is unsettling and creepy, it’s more routine than the movie deserves, and it’s satisfactory without being particularly fulfilling.

I asked myself at the end, what exactly are we supposed to feel about those final shots? I don’t think it’s supposed to be vindication; it’s certainly not meant to be happiness or closure. If we’re supposed to be involved in the conclusion of a story about the rather weighty and complicated topic of bullying and its consequences, then the ending is a shaggy dog trick, suggesting a simple moralistic payoff when we want more gravity and substance. If, however, The Gift is meant to be nothing more than the sum of its potboiler ingredients - a flighty non-supernatural version of Blumhouse’s Sinister or Insidious - it merits a more critical judgment for bringing in that topic as a tool to give the impression of greater depth. I choose to believe in the former, and view the movie in the light of an unexpectedly involving and tense standoff, between moral guilt and the need to maintain a persona, in search of an ending.