In a time when “horror” and “thriller” has come to mean shocks and gore just designed to either gross you out or make you jump in your seat over and over again just for the heck of it, a tightly-wound psychological mind-game like The Gift is real treat– a welcome return to 90s classics like The Hand That Rocks the Cradle and Basic Instinct.
Smartly written and directed by (and starring) Joel Edgerton, The Gift has no bloodshed and the only jump-scare is so well done that I’m fairly sure the entire theater shook a bit when it happened. But that doesn’t mean the movie isn’t among the scariest and downright brain-melting movies of the summer, if not the year.
Jason Bateman is perfectly (if not surprisingly) cast as Simon, a jack-hole who has just moved to California with his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) to take a corner-office job at an LA security firm. She, meanwhile, is dealing with a miscarriage that has forced her to start self-medicating. When they bump into one of Simon’s old high school buddies (though Simon barely remembers him), they offer the requisite “hey, great to see you” and “we should totally catch up sometime”, but Gordo (Edgerton) takes it as a formal invitation; he starts dropping by unannounced and leaving little gifts for the couple.
As well-meaning and convivial as he may appear, though, we can’t shake the sense that there’s just something a little “off” with Gordo, and we eventually learn that he was nicknamed “Gordo the Weirdo” in school. But it’s Simon who we end up really starting to wonder about. The more that Robyn wants to give Gordo the benefit of the doubt, the more Simon wants to just break up with the guy and forgot he ever (re)met him.
Just when you think you’ve got The Gift figured out (and you will, at several different points), Edgerton’s script throws more and more wrinkles into the mix until finally, as the ending starts to unfold, we’re left with our mouths gaping.
Bateman and Hall both give riveting, multi-layered performances– Bateman, particularly. Is this really the same guy who shepherded the Bluth family in Arrested Development and prat-falled his way through Identity Thief with Melissa McCarthy? But The Gift is Edgerton’s baby from the beginning and it stays his throughout. Eerily reminiscent of Michael Keaton’s creep-tastic turn in 1990’s Pacific Heights, he wisely keeps his weirdo factor at a nice, even simmer, never letting it boil over.
Directing his first feature, Edgerton also shows he’s not just a one-trick pony (or ‘two-trick’, I suppose– with his now-proven screenwriting abilities). Never content to rely on horror tropes, he uses subtle techniques like unbalanced shot framing to ramp up the tension. The strings-driven score is here, too, courtesy of composing partners Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, but it’s content to just remain in the background and set the mood, never becoming its own character.
As we wind down what’s generally been a so-so summer, I’m as surprised as anyone to find a memorable movie hit theaters in the typically barren wasteland of August, but they don’t get much more memorable than this movie. A rare gift, indeed.