Tightening like a vise and lying in wait with the patience of a jack-in-the-box ready to pounce, "The Gift" is a dynamite psychological suspenser that plays like a greatest-hits compilation of Alfred Hitchcock, Michael Haneke and John Carpenter. It is rare but worth savoring to walk into a film expecting one thing based on trailers and promotional materials and getting something altogether more penetrating and provocative instead. For actor Joel Edgerton (2013's "The Great Gatsby
"), making his auspicious writing-directing debut, he uses a familiar setup, one that would be right at home in a typical, threadbare "...from Hell" thriller, and then elevates it through sheer excellence in writing, performance and mise en scene
. Edgerton is adept at toying with expectationsfor every anticipated plot turn, there are multiple surprisesbut his most invaluable gift is in never stealing focus away from his enticingly complicated characters and the personal discord in which they find themselves bitterly trapped.
From a distance, "The Gift" appears to be traversing well-trodden territory. Married Chicago transplants Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn Callem (Rebecca Hall) have just moved into a sleek, glass-encased home in the idyllic Los Angeles hills. While out shopping, Simon is approached by Gordon 'Gordo' Mosley (Joel Edgerton), who says they went to high school together. Simon at first doesn't place him, but then he does. When he shows up unannounced shortly after a bottle of wine and a friendly note appear on their doorstep, Robyn kindly invites him to stay for dinner. She admits he is a little socially awkward after they've spent more time together, but sees him as harmless. Simon isn't so sure. Although Gordo has changed a great deal in the twenty-five years since they graduated, he remembers the tough time he had and the nickname"Weirdo"that followed him through school. In one of the many boundary-pushing notes he leaves at their home while they are out, he writes to Simon, "After all these years, I was really willing to let bygones be bygones." While Robyn begins to fear for her personal safety as Gordo's invasion of their privacy continues, she can't help but wonder what shady event from her husband's past Gordo might have been referencing.
"The Gift" is frighteningly rooted in reality, not a scene out of place or a character action stretching the boundaries of plausibility. There are exactly two jump scares, and both of them should inspire viewers to take flight. The rest of the film puts a distinct revisionist twist on the psycho-thriller, Edgerton's screenplay composed on a higher, tauter level than what one has come to expect from the genre. As assumptions as to where the story is going are defied and revelations uncovered, he asks his audience members to be active participants, challenging their alliances and placing them in each character's shoes. With little to no violence whatsoever, the picture stabs with old-fashioned apprehension and the unsettled feeling that nothing is quite right and anything could happen.
In the creative freedom which they are afforded, the trio of lead actors wholly commit to the script's emotional whirlwind. Jason Bateman (2014's "This Is Where I Leave You
") has rarely been better than he is as Simon Callem, locking into a darkly dramatic intensity that continues to prove he is an actor of far more depth than his comedic projects might suggest. Just as he is pushed to his limits by Gordo's eerie passive-aggressive tactics, Robyn is forced into confronting not only her own illusions of safety, but also the realization that even the closest of loved ones can sometimes not be exactly who they appear. Overcoming her not-so-transcendent performance in 2014's "Transcendence
," Rebecca Hall genuinely impresses as Robyn. It is from her perspective that much of the film is told, and she gives her charactera freelance interior designer unsure if becoming a parent is in her cardsall the engaging, sympathetic shades one hopes for from a great screen protagonist. As Gordo, Joel Edgerton delves chillingly beneath the surface of his frequently deceptive role. By treating this troubled, downtrodden man as more than a villainous gimmick, it is possible to care about him, too, even when he is scarily crossing the line. This is an unforgettable part, an Alex Forrest of the new millennium.
"The Gift" blisteringly unnerves for several reasons, but its refusal to consistently obey convention is where the film truly puts the viewer on edge. Shot on a modest $5-million budget, the picture is refreshingly not beholden to studio tinkeringthe fiercely indie-spirited Jason Blum of Blumhouse Productions is one of the producersand is never lacking in top-notch production values. The lush California-based lensing by cinematographer Eduard Grau (2012's "The Awakening
") sees danger in natural beauty and mood-drenched suggestion in lonesome, open spaces. When "The Gift" throws its final white-knuckle sucker punch, the open-ended complexity writer-director Joel Edgerton mines simply through the power of doubt is not easily shaken. This is classy filmmaking with inventively devilish intent.