The Gift

September 5, 2015
Jason Bateman in 'The Gift' (2015)
Jason Bateman in 'The Gift' (2015)

Most boys from the western suburbs of Sydney would be content with the life of a Hollywood actor, but Joel Edgerton has recently revealed an exceptional talent as a writer of screenplays. Now comes The Gift, his debut feature as a director, and it’s an impressive achievement. Not only has Edgerton written the script and directed, he also plays one corner of a tense emotional triangle.

The Gift begins with Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) finding a new, modern home in the Los Angeles hills, after relocating from Chicago. Simon is returning to his home town, having scored a high-powered job with an internet security firm. Robyn is an interior designer who is going to work freelance.

While shopping, Simon is approached by an apparent stranger (Edgerton) who introduces himself as Gordon, or “Gordo”, from his old class at school. Right from the start there is something odd about the way Gordo stares blankly at Simon and Robyn. They fob him off with the standard, insincerities – “We must catch up” – but Gordo has no intention of keeping his distance.

Soon there are neatly wrapped gifts appearing on their doorstep. When Gordo turns up while Simon is at work, Robyn invites him to stay for dinner. Yet the conversation is stilted and one-sided. Gordo expresses his admiration for the couple, while giving little away about his own life.

For Simon, this is too much. He recalls that Gordo was called “the Weirdo” at school, and finds him even weirder today. Robyn is more sympathetic, and urges her husband to be polite to this undesired friend.

As Gordo’s gifts become more extravagant, Simon and Robyn accept a dinner invitation. The night turns out badly and they tell their host not to call them again. But it is already too late. Gordo has insinuated himself into their lives as an almost subliminal presence.

Edgerton cranks up the tension little by little, as Robyn begins to feel insecure at home. The wall-sized glass windows of their house offer little protection, and every bump or flickering shadow exacerbates her paranoia. At the same time we find out she has a problem with amphetamines that may have contributed to a miscarriage in Chicago, or may be the result of that experience.

As she sinks into depression Simon is pushing aggressively for a promotion at work, and the tensions between them are rising. Robyn senses that Simon is not teling her the whole story about Gordo, and what they did at school. As she begins to dig deeper she discovers another side to her husband’s personality. We see the world through Robyn’s eyes, as she feels she is being stalked by one stranger while married to another.

There have been lots of movies about a couple being menaced by a mysterious interloper, but this film is no Cape Fear. Gordo may harbour malevolent intentions but his tactics are largely psychological. The subtle pressure he exerts brings out the bully in Simon, whose ambitious nature translates into violent, unscrupulous behaviour.

The novelty of The Gift is that it is a psychological thriller that turns on a failure of politeness. By rejecting Gordo’s overtures of friendship Simon rekindles old animosities that might otherwise have been laid to rest. Yet what can one do with a friend that keeps turning up when he is least wanted? Gordo is the kind of needy personality that won’t take a hint. It’s an intolerable bind, especially for Robyn who is already feeling frail and unstable.

Edgerton’s Gordo is a wonderfully ambiguous character. His blank expression seems to conceal a well of pent-up emotions: insecurity, resentment, envy, fear, simmering anger… almost anything. His good manners and willingness to help have a threatening edge. It is obvious to Robyn, and to us, that Gordo is carrying around a burden of pain that won’t let him rest, and Simon is somehow responsible.

Jason Bateman has to conjure a character who is both a loving husband, and a egocentric careerist who despises weakness in others. The dark side of Simon’s personality is allowed to slowly assert itself as the pressure builds. Meanwhile, Rebecca Hall’s Robyn has to mix vulnerability and strength, overcoming her own traumas to delve deeper into the mystery of her husband’s past.

Edgerton throws us a few easy clues but manages to disguise the big surprise ending. Along the way we meet many familiar motifs from the horror-suspense genre: from the sudden shock that ends in anti-climax, to the kitchen tap inexplicably running; and even a flash of Robyn’s bare back as she stands in the shower. It’s not exactly the Bates Motel, but this is a film Hitchcock might have been proud to own.

The Gift
Written & directed Joel Edgerton
Starring Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Allison Tolman, Tim Griffin, Adam Lazarre-White
Australia/USA, rated M, 108 mins

Published in the Australian Financial Review, Saturday 5th September, 2015.