When I read about the plot of this film, I was intrigued because it sounded like a remake of one of my favorite films of recent years, Chuck and Buck, written by and starring Mike White. It turns out there is a resemblance in the setup: a young married couple is visited by a creepy guy who went to school with the husband years before, and complications ensue. Actually, there’s not much resemblance, although, like White, writer-director Joel Edgerton cast himself in the role of the creepy guy. But the earlier film is a charming comic fable, while The Gift is a goose-bump shocker that slowly uncovers a crime from the past. And, despite flaws, the premise works. I was creeped out for sure, but also entertained and satisfied.
It begins with Simon (Jason Bateman) and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) arriving in Los Angeles, where they have bought a home near Simon’s new job. Simon had grown up there, and has scored a top position because of his expertise in cyber security. The move is also a fresh start for the couple, who hope to start a family after Robyn’s miscarriage the year before. The positive mood is sustained, or so it seems, when Simon is recognized by Gordo, a schoolmate from high school, who seems delighted to see him again. He heartily welcomes Simon’s return, and is soon stopping by with gifts for the couple in their new home.
Gordo’s overly friendly actions soon become suspicious, however, especially his “stopping by” just when Robyn is alone and Simon is away at work. Although Simon is mildly annoyed, Robyn seems sympathetic because Gordo is clearly a sad misfit with miserable social skills.
This setup is a little slow since we’re expecting Gordo to reveal sinister motives, and likely psychotic tendencies, as we’ve seen in so many other films. But then there is a sudden shift in tone, and the film bends into a different, and unexpected, psychological thriller. This shift occurs in one scene – the most crucial in the film – when the couple accept Gordo’s invitation to dinner. Gordo gets a phone call and, without further explanation, says he has to leave briefly because of an “emergency” at his job. But once the couple is alone, Simon reveals just how much he distrusts Gordo, and that he is convinced he has designs on Robyn. Simon’s sudden hostility is fierce and defensive, and it has the effect of preparing the audience for the revelations to come: just what did happen between these two “friends” that Simon is trying to hide.
There are at least two surprise twists that get the blood racing before the powerful conclusion. But, as my readers should expect, some glaring plot gaps should not be ignored: a major character is drugged, and falls unconscious, but there’s not a clue as to when or how the drugging occurred; a lie is spread that ruins a person’s life, but no legal recourse is ever mentioned; and, most glaringly, how is it that a professional security expert takes absolutely no measures to protect his own home? Finally – and I’m no spoiler here – the deserved retribution is simply not as devastating as it used to be because of recent medical advances.
Another quibble: although Bateman is superb in the crucial scene mentioned earlier, the fact is that he is basically miscast. The second half of the film calls for reserves of rage and menace that are simply outside of his range. If he was looking for the kind of career altering triumph, like what Steve Carell did in Foxcatcher, it doesn’t work.
Edgerton is fine, however, even though the role is underwritten and sketchy. But Rebecca Hall is in the most three-dimensional role, and she is the reason the film works so well. Her transformation from passive yuppie-type innocent to disillusioned and resentful wife is totally convincing, and gives the story emotional heft.