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