Aug 8, 2015

The Gift

Here's one scary movie that has no creaking doors, no ghosts, no supernatural forces. The evil man can do needs no special effects; it is destructive enough to warp reality for a lifetime. This excellent psychological thriller from the multi-talented writer, director, producer and actor Joel Edgerton delivers several jolts that make the audience jump in their seats, and, better yet, some very disturbing twists firmly rooted in complicated, believable characters.
Jason Bateman plays Simon, a charming achiever who moves from Chicago with his lovely wife Robin (the excellent Rebecca Hall) to a beautiful mid-century house in LA, an exposed house seemingly made of endless glass windows, delicate like an eggshell. Simon and Robin are a lovely couple trying to start a family, and Hall and Bateman have an effortless, lived-in intimacy which is rare in movies.
Bateman is perfectly cast as an ambitious corporate climber with a casual sense of humor and an easy-going charm. He is one of the best straight men in comedy, who specializes in smug all-American jocks. He brings his deadpan humor to this dramatic role. We root for Simon, we are seduced by his pluck, his good looks, and how he charms everyone who crosses his path: such a nice, successful man.  He is so suave that he has somehow talked Robin into moving away and quitting her job as a successful interior designer. Getting his way comes effortlessly to him.
As they shop for new furniture, they run into an old classmate of Simon's, a guy called Gordon (Edgerton). Soon Gordon, formerly nicknamed Gordo, is welcoming the couple to the neighborhood with a zeal bordering on the creepy. He leaves gifts on their doorstep, shows up unannounced, too full of good intentions. However, there is something about Gordo that seems both cowed and aggressive, weak and persistent. He is hateful, as all stalkers.
This movie delivers surprising twists that catch the audience off-guard, and change our perception of the characters, which feels as shocking to us as it does to Robin. The fortuitous encounter with her husband's old schoolmate unravels a web of secrets she had no clue about. It is a terrifying feeling to find out that you don't really know the person you think you know best.
Edgerton creates an atmosphere of tension from the moment Gordo appears at the furniture store, out of focus, on the edge of the frame. The sense of class tension helps, as Simon's golden boy seems to have thrived while everything about Gordo is undefined, and clearly not as successful. Robin is willing to give Gordo's neediness the benefit of the doubt. He has been in the Army, his life has unraveled, and he keeps showering them with gifts. But Simon is mean about him and a little wary.
Unsettling things happen. Simon asks Gordo to stop pestering them. As he explains himself to his wife, he sounds like a mouthpiece for the Republican party. He has little sympathy for Gordo's travails; he claims he had a rough childhood but got up by his bootstraps and made something of himself. His smug charm is that of any garden-variety sociopath, of those people who don't need guns or violence to crush others. In this country, their getting ahead by any means tends to be celebrated. Exuberant admiration for enterprising bullies (from Steve Jobs to Donald Trump, to name just two) is a quintessentially American thing. Edgerton is from Australia. Perhaps his vantage point allows him to see this with unusual clarity.
Although The Gift becomes more conventional towards the end, it establishes its premise and its characters deftly enough that certain exaggerated twists still make sense within the story. It's a small quibble for the rare thriller that uses reality to give us a good scare.

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