The Gift opens with shots of the interior of a house. The camera dollies slowly through the open hallways of a California home made up of glass more than anything else. Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) are moving into this house. They are from Chicago, though Simon grew up around the area. While out shopping one day, Simon runs into Gordo (Joel Edgerton, who is also the writer and director of the film), an old classmate of his. Gordo takes it upon himself to make the couple feel welcome in their new home, dropping off gifts and visiting often.
The setup is familiar, but the execution is quite remarkable. The first act of the movie goes on as one might expect, with Gordo slowly revealing himself to be a little off. His awkwardness makes it feel like there is something hiding just behind his hospitality. It could be that he’s just lonely, and he’s clinging a little too hard on the possibility of a friendship with his old classmate. Or, he could be a psychopath bearing a hidden grudge, seeking revenge for a long-forgotten offense. Or he could be a predator who’s fallen in love with Robyn. To this point, the film feels like a typical home invasion thriller, but then it reveals something more interesting up its sleeve.
There is a danger of giving too much away here, but the film reveals something deeper in its second act. It casts doubt on the paranoia that the couple is feeling, and redirects the fear towards another character. The typical idea behind films like these is that people should fear the strange, that any kind of social anxiety should interpreted as the possibility of danger. What this film does that is so remarkable is it subverts that idea completely. The film makes the very clever case that weirdoes can’t hide anything at all. It is the most normal looking folks who are probably hiding the darkest secrets.
This is all really compelling stuff, but there is a catch to all this. In its third act, the film deploys an iffy set of twists that undoes a lot of work done in the previous hour. The film floats possibility of a horrible act and presents it as a measure of justice. Again, one can really talk about this in the vaguest terms, but the film ends up going in a more traditional route as it reaches for some kind of shocking conclusion. It does end up feeling like a thriller after all, the big secrets of the ending leaning into lurid entertainment.
It leaves a foul taste, but it doesn’t quite erase all the good done in the previous two acts. Joel Edgerton shows some real potential as a director. He gets a lot out of the location, turning the bright, open floorplan of a California home into something more sinister. The film does a great job of making that house feel unsafe and impossible to secure, the walls of glass ready to break at any moment. Edgerton is also great as Gordo, who is an affecting bundle of awkwardness. Jason Bateman and Rebecca are terrific as well. Bateman plays this kind of role really well, but he finds new dimensions to his everyman persona. Rebecca Hall finds a real emotional journey within the film’s twisty framework.
The Gift ends up being a little too clever. It already deploys a really smart twist in the middle of the film, one that makes the audience question their impressions of the characters. But then in the end it goes one step too far in a bid for a memorable last shock. A little bit of restraint might have kept this film is much more respectable territory. As it is, though, while that ending might leave some feeling uneasy, the film is much smarter than most thrillers out there. It finds compelling things to say about the lies we tell about who we are and how we got to where we are. Queasiness aside, this film is worth a look.