By Don Simpson | August 8, 2015
Director: Joel Edgerton
Writer: Joel Edgerton
Starring: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Allison Tolman, Tim Griffin, Busy Philipps, Adam Lazarre-White, Beau Knapp, Wendell Pierce, Mirrah Foulkes, Nash Edgerton, David Denman, Katie Aselton, David Joseph Craig, Susan May Pratt, P.J. Byrne
Robyn (Rebecca Hall) and Simon (Jason Bateman) recently relocated from Chicago and into a glass-walled house in the hills of East Los Angeles. The change in scenery serves two purposes: an opportunity for Simon to leap up the corporate ladder and a chance for the childless couple to start their lives anew after Robyn’s miscarriage.
For better or worse, the move also brings Simon back to within close proximity of the SoCal neighborhood where he grew up. This opens the door for them to fatefully bump into one of Simon’s high school classmates, Gordo (Joel Edgerton). Simon does his best to blowoff Gordo, but the socially awkward former acquaintance seems dead set on welcoming Robyn and Simon to the neighborhood. While Robyn kindly accepts Gordo’s gifts, Simon grows increasingly irritated. Functioning as an homage to the slick home invasion/stalker thrillers of the early 1990s (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Single White Female, Sleeping with the Enemy, Sliver), the sticky web that forms between the three characters spirals totally out of control.
As details about Simon and Gordo’s experiences in high school are revealed, their present personalities make all the more sense. In commenting about the film, writer-director-actor Joel Edgerton has said that The Gift is about not being able to escape your past. It is Simon and Gordo’s childhood that informs their present day personalities. Both of them have tried to forget whatever it was that happened back then, but it continues to haunt both of them. That is precisely what makes The Gift a brilliant contemplation on the long-lasting repercussions of childhood bullying.
Despite being his debut feature, Edgerton’s visual approach is refined and calculated, establishing a chillingly detached perspective. The formalist presentation of The Gift is downright Hitchcockian, particularly with Edgerton’s uncanny grasp of visual clues and metaphors. The repeated use of windows and mirrors to represent how each character perceives themselves and others (subtle distortions, invisible separations) may reach the point of oversaturation, but that might just be the film’s only real flaw…visually speaking, at least.
Despite a well-formulated screenplay with a beguiling narrative arc, the character development within Edgerton’s script seems a bit too wooden. This is especially true with the character of Gordy, who is quite simply a silly caricature of the adult version of a high school “weirdo” — and how on earth did someone who spent a majority of their life in Southern California end up with that strange accent? Edgerton has proven himself over the years to be a highly capable actor, so maybe the dual pressures of acting and directing threw him off his game?
The submissive and weak, one-dimensional characterization of Robyn is also disappointing — but that is certainly not to say Rebecca Hall does not give this performance her all. Sure, it makes sense that Simon’s wife would possess some of these traits, but it seems like female characters should have evolved beyond this over-simplified “type” by now (then again, maybe Edgerton is just channeling Hitchcock in his representation of women?). Robyn is made the recurring victim in order to provide the film with a sympathetic character, but she is also one of those disturbingly dumb damsels in distress who the audience will want to stop from making one excruciatingly naive choice after another.
Of the three leads, Jason Bateman is the only one who ends up with an intriguing character. This is at least partially because Bateman embodies Simon with his signature snarkiness, but mutates it from a comedic affectation to something unabashedly mean-spirited. Simon is a maniacal Capitalist with a relentless success-oriented drive that leads him to do just about anything to get ahead; in other words, he is the epitome of the white collar bully. Give this man a bad combover and you have a young Donald Trump.