Don’t miss ‘The Gift’ if you’re brave enough
The big story of the weekend is that you should avoid the “Fantastic Four” reboot at all costs, but what should you see instead? Consider psychological thriller “The Gift.”
Its premise seems familiar on the surface. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move to California, close to where he grew up. An awkward former classmate of Simon’s, named Gordo (Joel Edgerton), thrusts himself into their life with a cloying and creepy attachment. One thing leads to another, and pretty soon Simon and Robyn are terrified by Gordo. Yet “The Gift” holds more secrets than your average “Cape Fear” knockoff. It’s a tightly wound thriller of well-paced deceptions and reveals that holds moments of real fright and disturbing vengeance.
“The Gift” works so very well because control over its plot evolves from one act to the next. Doing this as spoiler-free as possible, during the first act, Simon is making the decisions. He’s the one who guides the direction of the story. The most important element is also the most subtle: Robyn acts out of a need to fill many of the expected roles of a wife to Simon. Yet the viewer can catch blink-and-you’ll-miss-them instances that point toward Simon bullying her. He feeds her those expectations and controls her through them. She’s restless, but she doesn’t know why.
The second act is entirely Robyn’s, and it’s the most compelling. She’s paranoid and trapped in her own home, but it’s not just because of Gordo -- it’s also because of the subtle pressures Simon exerts over her life. She confronts her own doubts and begins to uncover hidden truths about Simon as well.
I’ll refrain from divulging anything about the third act except to say it’s all about Gordo realizing his control. This makes for a disturbing ending that doesn’t play to any familiar expectations. The final twist is not one that you’ll guess. That’s a rare feat in cinema.
Ultimately, that unsettling ending both helps and hinders “The Gift.” Its twist is clever because it’s right in front of you the whole time, but it’s also a jolt that holds “The Gift” back from being truly great. Since most of the film is about revealing truth and getting closer to being whole, it’s disappointing that the movie ultimately boils down to realizations of even more brutal psychological harm and physical violation. These take place in very removed ways -- more in the characters’ heads than on-screen. That makes it compelling and emotionally earned, but the ending isn’t perfectly executed. Still, “good but not great” is hardly faint praise. Many gore-fests spill buckets of blood. “The Gift” doesn’t spill a drop, yet it’s vastly more disturbing.
Here’s where the audience will split. For those expecting a more traditional horror movie, a deliberate slow burner might not possess the right kind of big events. There’s creep factor to “The Gift,” and two of the most effective jump scares I’ve experienced, but this is squarely in psychological thriller territory, not pure horror.
For those wanting a psychological suspense piece with a lot of character, this is your film. It gets inside your head very well, and it keeps you guessing throughout. Its ideas are disturbing and play off the paranoid inferences our own minds start creating everywhere.
All three leads deliver superb performances. Bateman is most famous for “Arrested Development,” but he shows a skill for subtlety and misdirection here I didn’t expect. He has a scene two-thirds through the film that is perhaps the best moment of his career. Rebecca Hall (“The Town”) powers through films and has a knack for characters who feel real and accessible. Her role is quieter yet more demanding than the two men. Edgerton (Ramses in “Exodus: Gods and Kings”) also wrote and directed the film. You can see why he cast himself as Gordo. He’s note perfect, making a small role cast a large and toxic shadow across the rest of the film.
The three fuse and play off each other exceedingly well. Explaining the talent each actor displays on their own doesn’t quite express the devious synergy at play between them. It’s a perfect trio for this kind of film, each one charming, guarded, and needy in turn, one pulling for something the minute another pushes.
Two-and-a-half stars out of four. “The Gift” is a surprising bonus at the end of the summer. One day, it’ll make a vicious double-feature with “Gone Girl.” It’s rated R for language, but I would also advise a trigger warning for sexual assault. It’s appropriate for adults, but not for kids.
Gabe Valdez grew up in Chicago, went to college in Massachusetts, is a former news reporter in Floresville, Texas, and worked in politics in Oregon. He writes and directs films when he can find the time. Reviews, views, photos and more can be found at http://basilmarinerchase.wordpress.com. Email him at email@example.com.
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