The Gift is vile, salacious trash.
Jason Bateman is tired of playing nice guys. Best known as Michael Bluth, the moral center of the recently-resurrected television series Arrested Development, this eminently likable leading man has been taking on roles that reveal a darker edge. Bateman’s directorial debut, the unfunny comedy Bad Words, seemed designed specifically to provide an outlet for his pricklier side. He played an entitled man-child who continually sabotages and insults the young contestants of a spelling bee he’s entered on a technicality. The novelty of seeing Bateman play a bastard wore off long before the credits roll, though, and that’s essentially the film’s only joke.
Now we have The Gift, another directorial debut, which uses Bateman’s familiar geniality to mislead the viewer and perhaps also to offset his character’s more overtly unlikable traits. For most of its running time, it’s a passably mediocre psychological horror film, skating on suspenseful ambiguity and worn genre tropes. However, the plot takes a revolting turn in the final 20 minutes that sours the whole experience. Skip the final paragraph of this review if you don’t want to know what happens.
Director, screenwriter and co-star Joel Edgerton has had a solid career as an actor, and more recently accrued writing credits with Felony and The Rover, but outside of two short films, he hasn’t stepped behind the camera until now. Edgerton sets up an interesting but somewhat predictable dynamic between his character and Bateman’s, pulling sympathy back and forth between them; helping steer the viewer along the way is Rebecca Hall, a fantastic actress who’s made a few great films but has yet to find a breakout role (this is not it).
Hall plays Robyn, wife of Simon (Bateman) and the film’s only trustworthy character. The couple has just moved to California following Robyn’s miscarriage and a subsequent emotional fallout, alluded to as a “rough patch,” that included prescription pill abuse. While shopping for furnishings for their new digs, Simon is approached by Gordo (Edgerton), an old acquaintance from high school. Simon seems not to recall his former schoolmate at first, yet the awkward-but-polite Gordo clearly remembers Simon. A few days later, Robyn finds a bottle of wine on their doorstep—a housewarming gift from Gordo, whom they invite over for dinner despite Simon’s protests. Gordo seems nice enough, but over the next week he continually inserts himself into their lives and lavishes on them increasingly generous gifts. Simon wants nothing to do with Gordo the Weirdo (as he was known in school) and ultimately “breaks up” with him once he’s had enough.
The tension in the first act is well wrought. Edgerton shoots in uncomfortable long takes and uses telephoto lenses to shoot from a distance, frequently imbuing the action with a voyeuristic quality. Additionally, the house where most of the action is set, with its wide glass panels, creates an unnerving sense that somebody may be lurking outside, similar to the way It Follows makes the paranoid viewer scan the screen for background extras trundling toward the protagonist. Edgerton plays Gordo as a tricky balancing act: he’s clearly an oddball, but he’s friendly enough that Robyn’s sympathy for him feels credible. The more she learns about Gordo, though, the less she comes to trust her husband. At one point Gordo leaves them a mysterious note that includes a line about “letting bygones be bygones.” When Robyn asks Simon what that means, he says he has no idea. Gordo mostly disappears for the film’s middle stretch, as Robyn tries to figure out what her husband could have done to Gordo all those years ago and fears impending revenge.
Whatever dubious strengths the film has are undone by the plot’s final turn, which abhorrently trivializes rape by focusing only on how it affects the male characters. Gordo gets his revenge, all right, but somehow the act is considered a hit against Simon rather than against the actual victim of the purported assault (which may not have actually occurred). Not only is this a problematic depiction of sexual violence—which is bad enough—it’s unsatisfying on a dramatic level. All ambiguity surrounding the characters is lifted: Simon is and has always been a bully, and Gordo, though his desire for restitution is understandable, is horrifically deranged. Instead, a new ambiguity is introduced: which man impregnated Robyn? This is the torment Simon now has to suffer—not the fact that his wife may have been raped, but that his son may not, in fact, be his. In the end, The Gift is revealed as the vile, salacious trash it’s been all along.