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