There are so many movies under the banner of ‘thriller’ about stalkers and killers that it is hard not to be jaded when seeing yet another one that is advertised as such. There needs to be something special about a new one to make it memorable. The Gift, although flawed in parts of its execution and is made to look really simple in ads, is realized to be much better than what could have been expected from a picture such as this.
One of the biggest flaws of the movie is the slow-paced flow of the opening quarter. You are introduced to the world of the movie with a married couple, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) buying a new house in Los Angeles. It’s hard to get comfortable and settled into the movie because the cinematography is unwelcoming. It is hard to connect and feel a sense of place. The picture, overall, is too tight a lot of the time. The other flaw is the constant feeling that it will take the turn of a much lesser movie and fall into the abyss of schlock.
The first half of the story unfolds mostly through Robyn’s perspective. To her, the events that transpire and the reasons behind them are a complete mystery. Robyn has moved into this new house and new city with her husband, who seems to have had a chance encounter with a high school classmate named Gordo (Joel Edgerton; who also wrote and made this movie his directorial debut) at a shop. He wants to catch up with Simon, but Simon doesn’t care to. Simon tells Robyn that he didn’t even recognize Gordo at first. But, it has been over twenty years since high school.
While at the shop, Robyn and Simon give their address to the store clerk for their order, which Gordo overhears. They are in a hurry as the store is about to close, and they leave after a rushed introduction and conversation with him. Later, they receive gifts at their doorstep, such as a bottle of wine, from him. Simon is put off by this, but Robyn sees him as awkwardly kind. He is kind and warm toward both of them. He stops by the house when only Robyn is home, she invites him in and insists he stays for dinner. He actually seems somewhat hesitant as he accepts the offer. Simon isn’t thrilled through dinner, and after it, insists to Robyn that they no longer have any contact with this old supposed friend.
Still, he keeps coming back at times when Simon is away at work and brings more gifts. Simon calls him a reverse burglar and jokes that he will cut him off after he’s finished furnishing the house. Simon also explains to Robyn that the high school nickname for this unwanted friend was “Gordo the Weirdo.” The good-natured Robyn responds to this by remarking that school kids are cruel. Some people are, at their core, bullies.
Many of the scenes in which Gordo invites himself to the house feel very awkward and tense and get even more so as the welcoming Robyn becomes less welcoming because of what Simon says. And this tension is heightened by the guest’s warmth, lack of hostility, and his sense of how unwelcomed by Simon he is. Joel Edgerton is fantastic as this character as he makes this troublingly mysterious person very empathetic. Jason Bateman is also very good at playing his character with a dark undercurrent, shaking off what’s familiar to fans of Arrested Development. And, Rebecca Hall (The Prestige, The Town) is always charming and is good at putting on an American accent in place of her natural English one.
There is a great scene where the couple are invited to dinner at Gordo’s home –which they feel compelled to accept. This scene, amongst many others, could have taken the movie into schlocky territory. The Gift doesn’t go there but, again, it constantly feels like it will. And constantly having that teetering feeling detracts from the better narrative that is actually there, adding a negative tension about the movie in itself. There are also many plot points and aspects of this movie that are predictable, but these aspects come from, or are taken to, a different route. A minor unfortunate aspect to note is that there are a few unnecessary false jump scares. This might be irritating to those that are desensitized, especially when sitting with an audience that is not.
Of course, there is more to the other two characters besides what Robyn knows about them, and the perspective changes a little more than half way through the movie to more of a true third-person narrative. But it’s best to not know how when going into the movie. Just know that it isn’t derailed and that it is more of a dark, character-driven drama rather than anything that could be considered a horror movie.