Directed by Joel Edgerton
Opens August 7
The Gift stars three actors who appear in a lot of movies but don’t always get enough to do: Jason Bateman, so masterfully deadpan on Arrested Development and often squandered in his other straight-man roles, and the always empathetic, sometimes marginalized Rebecca Hall play Simon and Robyn, husband and wife who are relocating to Los Angeles for Simon’s new job and, it becomes clear, Robyn’s piece of mind, following an initially unspecified unpleasantness back in Chicago. Their new house is described as letting in ample light (it’s one of those glass-heavy houses on a hill that I assume most upper-middle-class LA folks live in) yet always seems overcast and gray inside, even when the sun is clearly shining on the other side of the glass.
The third point in the movie’s non-love triangle is Gordo, played by Joel Edgerton, who also wrote and directed, and is one of those Australian actors who seems to get cast in a lot of big movies without quite breaking through (he’s played Luke Skywalker’s Uncle Owen, a knight of the Round Table, a Zero Dark Thirty soldier, and Gatbsy‘s Tom Buchanan, among others). There are other characters in the movie, but Edgerton’s direction, mostly sticking to Robyn’s point of view, swiftly yet unobtrusively teases out the trio of relationships: Simon and Robyn run into Gordo, who Simon knew in high school and hasn’t seen since. Socially awkward and slightly overfamiliar, Gordo brings them a housewarming present, and attempts to befriend the couple. Simon feels uncomfortable; Robyn does too, a little, but also sympathetic to a guy who seems lonely and a little odd.
As a screenwriter, Edgerton has an impressive ear for everyday small talk: how both a husband and wife might really talk to each other, and how they try to navigate a friendly but unwanted interloper. Bateman has a distinctive vocal pattern, a way of constantly sounding like he’s tactfully breaking suboptimal news, and Edgerton either wrote the part to play up that low-level smarm or let Bateman skew it in that direction with his performance. Either way, the early scenes between Simon, Robyn, and Gordo prickle with tension, couched in social niceties and the meaner jokes people might make when they think they’re alone. There’s more traditional thriller stuff, too—dark hallways, the camera lingering in empty rooms, bad dreams with jump-scares—but the movie’s cheaper tricks work because so much of it operates within the boundaries of uncomfortable plausibility.
Which is not to say that The Gift doesn’t push, thriller-style, into the overheated and the borderline ludicrous. Yet even the movie’s twists, which could be described as both wild and carefully telegraphed, have a baseline conviction to them, especially when seen through Hall’s eyes (she has a gift for modulation while appearing to just barely hold it together, perfect for the kind of thriller where a female character is often accused or hysteria or paranoia). Edgerton, who resembles TV’s Conan O’Brien, spends a lot of the movie on the sidelines as an actor; The Gift is the rare stalker-ish thriller where the stalker’s true nature remains legitimately ambiguous, in part because Edgerton steps off and lets Hall and Bateman unravel without him.
When the movie comes to rely more on information delivery, the kind of exposition the first chunk gracefully avoids, the directness, in a weird way, makes the movie feel slightly overlong, drawn out when it’s at its busiest. The Gift also could’ve used a little more Bateman charm in the early going; he’s so adept at masking suspicious behavior with upper-middle-class pseudo-jocularity that some of the movie’s second-half impact is blunted (though at least this movie plays fair with its revelations, rather than relying on from-nowhere nonsense). But as an unnerving exploration of old high-school grudges, Edgerton’s first feature is unusually attuned to turning screws to middle-class social anxieties, not just poking at them.