“The Gift” is old-fashioned in the way it conjures up scares. It’s filled with creepy characters who are one emotional jolt from going over the edge, scares that come more through psychological twists and more plot curves than a Major League Baseball game.
It doesn’t rely on the loud orchestration of a creepy soundtrack, bloody images or ghastly scenarios to move the audience. Its Hitchcockian approach creates tension and scares. You won’t go running from the theater, but you will look at the person sitting next to you in a very different way.
First-time director and writer Joel Edgerton establishes a normal setting to unleash his deeply complicated character study. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have moved to Los Angeles to get away from bad memories and events. This idyllic-looking couple needs a fresh start.
Then Simon is approached by Gordo (Edgerton), a person with whom he attended high school 20 years ago. At first, Simon doesn’t recognize this face from his past. Slowly he begins to remember, and his recollections are of a strange young man.
This chance meeting opens the door for Gordo to inject himself into the couple’s lives. It starts innocently enough, but Gordo slowly begins to reveal his true motives and begins to strip away the happy faces Simon and Robyn present. By the middle of the movie, it’s impossible to know which characters are good and which hold an evil heart.
Edgerton shows a veteran skill in building this thriller. It starts with the casting, including himself.
Bateman — so long considered a comic actor — has expanded his resume in recent years to show his ability to play very dark and serious characters. He can turn the perfect husband persona into a character with emotional peaks and valleys.
He’s particularly strong when working with Hall, who continues to demonstrate an adept ability to play complex characters who appear rather simple at first blush. That changes with each moment of the film as she takes a character who normally would be an easy victim and builds her strength and courage to a point where she is a worthy opponent.
It’s Edgerton who seals the deal.
At times, he plays the character like an emotionally spent rag doll whose had its stuffing kicked out by life. He then slowly shows glimmers of strength, never revealing too much at any one time. That makes the performance compelling to watch.
Director Alfred Hitchcock always selected the perfect venue for his stories to unfold, whether it be a bedroom window or a national monument. Edgerton follows Hitchcock’s lead masterfully, as he’s selected the perfect location for his emotional games to be played. The house used for the film is like a gigantic fishbowl: No matter how hard those inside try, they can’t hide from the outside world.
“The Gift” has one last great strength. Edgerton has created a movie that respects the intelligence of the audience. He’s created an ending that will spark debates, a blessing in the summer plot doldrums where everything gets wrapped up with a loud bang or big scare.
The film asks the audience to think, and Edgerton has given them plenty to ponder.
3.5 stars out of 5
Cast: Rebecca Hall, Jason Bateman, Joel Edgerton.
Director: Joel Edgerton.
Running time: 1:48.
Rated: R, for language.