Opening last weekend as a B genre movie snugly scheduled as counterprogramming to Fantastic Four and counter-counterprogramming to Ricki and the Flash, Joel Edgerton’s feature directorial debut The Gift put up surprisingly respectable numbers, chalking up $12 million for a third place finish (on a meager $5 million budget, to boot). It’s a well-crafted and efficient little domestic thriller, paced with an admirable deliberateness, acted with vulnerability and precision, executed with honest tension that results in a couple of big, knockout scares. And it concludes with one of the most repugnant turns this side of a ‘60s-era exploitation “roughie,” a “twist” so vile it pretty much cancels out the considerable skill and accomplishment of what’s preceded it. (This is the part where you’re warned that, obviously, spoilers will follow.)
And make no mistake about it: up until this brutal miscalculation, The Gift is a slick and effective picture. Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman play Robyn and Simon, a well-to-do couple relocating to California after losing a pregnancy. No sooner have they arrived than they run into Gordo (Edgerton), an old school friend of Simon’s — a nice enough guy, though there seems to be something just a little off about him. He keeps showing up at their house (“How did he get our address?”) bearing little gifts; he usually does so when Simon’s at work, leaving Robyn to fend him off, yet she can’t help but be nice. Simon harbors no such inclination, and Edgerton’s script adroitly illustrates how this little conflict over how to handle this semi-stranger creates a push-pull that ends up reopening old wounds in the couple’s relationship.
In fact, his screenplay is much more interested in the “psychological” half of the psychological thriller formula, letting Robyn and Simon’s dysfunction reveal itself through action rather than confessions or other, less interesting forms of exposition, crafting a compelling little mystery around what exactly happened between Simon and Gordo in their past, and reminding us of how easily and effortlessly we fall back into our previously defined roles — flirting with, but not quite achieving (particularly not if you take that ending into account), a commentary on bullying and its inextricable relationship with toxic masculinity.
Which is not to say Edgerton’s not interested in conventional thrills (I mean, you know something’s gonna happen to that dog). He knows how to intercut for maximum impact, how to build tension by letting a shot linger just a hair too long, how to couple his gliding camera with an errant noise or two in order to properly place us inside Robyn’s on-the-edge mindset. (One of the producers is the prolific Jason Blum, and there’s something noteworthy about how much of his work — the Insidious and Paranormal Activity series, Sinister, The Purge, this — is wrapped up in the basic fear of someone or something in one’s home without permission.) Edgerton threads the needle carefully, and feels the pressure to neither insert false scares nor get into any particular hurry; he takes his time on an early dinner scene between the trio, letting them sit in the uneasiness long enough to make us antsy as well.
Unsurprisingly for an actor-turned-director, he gets sharp, finely tuned performances out of his cast — and himself, managing to play Gordo with an off-balance and unpredictable mixture of enigmatic mystery and open vulnerability. Bateman may seem an unlikely pick, but he works well within that tiny pivot between wry detachment and smug dickishness. And Rebecca Hall, perpetually under-appreciated and always credible, makes for a sympathetic and compelling heroine.
Make no mistake about it — this is her movie, told almost entirely from her point of view. She’s the focus of pretty much every scene; there are brief interludes of Bateman at work, but when it comes to moments that matter (like her exit from a tense “dinner party” at Gordo’s), the camera stays with her. And perhaps that’s why the ending plays like such a betrayal: because up until then, she seems like an honest-to-God female protagonist, before the script reduces her to a piece of property that Simon is afraid Gordo has “marked.”
In a nutshell (and, y’know, last chance to not read the big spoiler): at the height of their anxiety over Gordo, Robyn has a presumably pill-induced collapse at home. When she comes to, she and Simon resolve to put the entire ugly episode behind them, put their lives back together, finally start a family, etc. And that’s exactly what happens, until it begins to unravel, and then Robyn goes into labor. After she has their baby, Simon returns to their home and finds one last series of gifts from Gordo: a copy of a key to their place, surreptitiously recorded audio of Simon and Robyn joking about Gordo’s sexual interest in her, and a video of Gordo in their house, during her blackout, suggesting he assaulted her while she was unconscious, and perhaps the newborn child is his. (This revelation is played, incidentally, as a betrayal/attack on Simon; Robyn is barely present in the closing scenes.)
As far as twists go, it’s a pretty stupid one; as a critic friend noted in the lobby after a press screening, the film seems willfully ignorant of the existence of DNA tests. But even without that objection, it’s still a might seedy button to hang your movie’s hat on — yet another example of (usually male) TV writers and filmmakers using rape as a shock button that’s pushed too frequently, and too carelessly. In The Gift, it’s not creepy, and it’s not clever; it’s just plain cheap.
It’s also, one could argue, part of the tradition of domestic thrillers that The Gift seems to pattern itself after; The Hand That Rocks the Cradle uses a sexual assault as a plot point, to pick the most obvious example, while the narratives and tension of films like Unlawful Entry and Sleeping with the Enemy are doubtlessly fueled by the threat (explicit or otherwise) of rape. But they made those movies in a different time, and in a different culture, and for a movie like this to trot it out as some kind of crude, bullshit “gotcha” leaves an otherwise commendable picture with a decidedly sour aftertaste.
The Gift is in theaters now.