After they relocate to California, successful married couple Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) bump into Gordo (Joel Edgerton), an old classmate of Simon’s. This chance meeting soon makes way for an uncomfortable relationship, the maladroit Gordo showering the couple with unwanted gifts, until Simon brings an abrupt end to the friendship. When past secrets begin to emerge, however, things quickly turn from awkward to frightening.
Having previously penned 2013 cop thriller Felony (and 2008’s The Square), actor Joel Edgerton writes, directs and stars in this psychological thriller which similarly explores the idea that one bad choice can have life-changing repercussions. As Gordo wedges himself into the lives of Simon and Robyn, relationships are put under the spotlight, accusations and suspicions shifting like the sands of time. Unlike most genre films, in which good and bad are clearly defined concepts and the interloper usually brings the threat, Edgerton continually plays with expectation, as Simon and Gordo take it in turns to be both villain and victim.
On opposite sides of this battle of wills, Bateman and Edgerton are excellent. Bateman successfully breaks out of his comedy niche, and his casting brings an additional edge to seeming nice-guy Simon. Edgerton, sporting an unflattering hair and beard combo and gold earring, fully embraces the off-kilter elements of Gordo, a man whose obsession with the past is preventing him from having any kind of future.
Less impressive, however, is Robyn. While she is the key to unlocking the secret that binds her husband to Gordo, she is a far weaker character than the story can support. Although the screenplay takes care to establish her own turmoil, and she is sensitively played by the always brilliant Hall, she is a delicate reed buffeted by the current of testosterone, with nothing to do other than respond to the men around her. Simon is undoubtedly an overwhelming character, but Robyn’s submissiveness goes beyond her on-screen situation and into the realm of narrative cliché. That she is a commodity to be claimed is an idea exacerbated by an unnecessarily nasty ending, at blunt odds with the astute ideas at play here.
Gender stereotyping aside, The Gift is an otherwise accomplished debut feature with far more ambition than standard genre fare. Beautifully shot by talented cinematographer Eduard Grau (Buried, Hall-starrer The Awakening), he and editor Luke Doolan make evocative use of the couple’s sprawling home to skew the trappings of domestic bliss into something rather more ominous, and underscore the psychological elements of Edgerton’s screenplay. Running faucets, steamy showers and the demise of family pets may be well-worn thriller tropes, but here they are effectively used to ratchet up the tension and provide more than a few audience-pleasing jolts along the way.
UK release: August 7, 2015
This review was originally published at The List