Movie Review: The Gift
By Matthew Huntley
August 12, 2015

Has anyone ever told him he looks like angsty, grumpy Conan O'Brien?

The Gift could have just as easily been titled, The Gifts, because the movie’s designated villain bestows more than one upon a yuppie couple after they move into his neighborhood. However, the titular “gift” probably refers to the final one he gives them, and I wouldn’t dare reveal its contents, but it’s highly unlikely anyone would ever want it, hence the movie’s tagline, “Not every gift is welcome.”

Not every person is welcome, either (as we all know), and The Gift is another one of those thrillers about a seemingly friendly and harmless individual who first makes nice but then turns encroaching, creepy, and, finally, threatening. We’ve seen other suspense movies like this before, among them Unlawful Entry, The Talented Mr. Ripley and Lakeview Terrace. However, as common as its setup may be, The Gift distinguishes itself by its surprising lack of gimmicks and affectations, and the way it slowly develops its characters beyond our initial impressions of them.

For the most part, everything about the movie - its dialogue, the character relationships, and the twists - feels genuine and plausible. Only a few times does writer-director Joel Edgerton resort to traditional and overused thriller devices to make sure he has our attention. But, to his credit, they weren’t necessary; we find the characters and their dilemmas intriguing.

When the story begins, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), a young, well-to-do white couple, are buying a new house in a leafy Los Angeles suburb, and given its views and the type of property, all I can say is Simon’s new job at a big-time L.A. corporation must pay extremely well. They’ve moved out west from Chicago for reasons Robyn later discloses to a neighbor, but ultimately they’re looking to make a clean break and start a family.

While shopping for new house accessories at the mall, Simon is approached by Gordon (Edgerton), who has one of those boyish faces and awkward dispositions that put him just on the other side of “normal,” almost as if he’s not a full-fledged adult. Gordon tells Simon he knows him from high school, and although it takes Simon a minute to remember, Gordon is indeed right, they did know each other, but they weren’t exactly friends. Now, 25 years later, Gordon makes it clear he wants to change that. Simon and Robyn give him their number and, almost immediately, Gordon, who says his friends call him “Gordo,” starts leaving them gifts at their door and making unannounced visits.

Gordo’s gestures start out harmless enough, but they soon grow pushy, even disturbing. For instance, he gives them fish food and Simon and Robyn discover he’s filled their koi fish pond with real fish, which means he was on their property without their knowledge. Then, after an uncomfortable dinner that Gordo essentially invited himself to, Simon starts to recollect things about him that made him seem “off,” which were why the kids at school gave him the nickname, “Weirdo.” Robyn is more sympathetic and forgiving than her husband, saying, “Kids can be cruel,” but Simon says, “No, kids can be honest.” He’s quick to say he needs to have a direct conversation with Gordo and tell him not to come by anymore, not least because he gets the sense Gordo is attracted to Robyn.

Like most thrillers, The Gift relies on twists and moments of shock to achieve its effect, so where things goes from here, I’ll not divulge, but what makes Edgerton’s screenplay fresh is the way it strives not to simply recycle archetypal characters or have the plot boil down to a traditional good guy vs. bad buy physical confrontation. It’s more insightful and thoughtful. One of its themes is how, as a mixed society, we’re prone to judge others too quickly based on superficial qualities alone instead of waiting until we know their full history and background. Too often we take things for how they seem rather than how they are. The movie also argues it can take years for a person to reveal his or her true self, that even to the people we love and spend every day with, we put up a façade.

Edgerton is also interested in the idea that our past actions, both good and bad, eventually come full circle. It’s a rather obvious point, sure, but it still gives the film an extra layer and more for us to think about after we leave the theater.

As I mentioned, The Gift doesn’t completely sidestep every thriller cliché. We get the usual slow, quiet scene of a person investigating a strange noise only to be startled by what turns out to be the family pet, which is of course accompanied by a loud crescendo on the soundtrack. There’s also a shower scene when a character wipes off the steamy door and suddenly sees someone looking at them. We even get the old “it was all just a dream” routine.

But aside from these rather tacky moments, The Gift is taut and believable, and the exchanges between the characters feel true (the performances strike us as sincere and unaffected, especially Bateman’s; it was nice to see him take a break from his usual straight-guy, likable persona). What I admired most was how each of the characters develops slowly and subtly through suggestive dialogue and behavior instead of overly blatant signals. Edgerton proves he’s a filmmaker who trusts his audience to get things without feeling the need to be explicit. He also ends the movie on just the right note because he doesn’t seal the characters’ fate through action and confrontation but instead leaves them (and us) in a state of reflection, pondering what they’ve done and wondering what’ll happen to them. It’s a powerful and unexpected conclusion. Just like Gordo, The Gift at first seems like it’s of a certain type, but over time, we learn there’s more to it.