Movies · Reviews

The Gift Is the Right Kind of Nasty

By  · Published on August 8th, 2015


Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have moved to Los Angeles in the hopes of leaving past troubles behind them as they start fresh with a new home and his new job. They’re still settling in when Gordo (Joel Edgerton, who also writes/directs) approaches them in a store and shares that he and Simon went to school together. Simon shows a vague recollection before he and Robyn leave with the promise to call and catch up soon, but the very next day they find a housewarming gift at their front door. More gifts follow along with some surprise visits by Gordo while Simon’s at work. He just wants to be friends, and as he writes in a note for Simon – he wants to let bygones be bygones.

Robyn sees a loneliness in Gordo’s soft eyes and slumped shoulders and a kindness in his gifts, but Simon moves quickly from annoyance to anger at the uninvited visitor’s attention. He seems unaware of any past conflicts with the man, and he suspects that Gordo’s daytime visits are due more to a fixation on Robyn than any desire for friendship. She disagrees but defers to her husband’s decision to cut ties, but as the days pass she can’t shake the feeling that her time alone at home is occurring with someone else in the house.

Edgerton’s feature directorial debut The Gift takes a nod from Jonathan Kaplan’s underrated early ’90s thriller Unlawful Entry for the first act – a nice, normal couple makes hesitant friends with an overly kind, possibly lonely man only to discover too late the danger he brings – but the filmmaker quickly finds his own voice and takes the tale in a darker, meaner and far less traditional direction.

There are actually two gifts here for moviegoers – a trio of strong performances in a genre film, and the rare psychological thriller that succeeds in mining emotional and mental terrors without having to resort to clichéd scares or acts of physical brutality. Edgerton does toss in a pair of jump scares – probably a contractual requirement of releasing under the Blumhouse banner – but they work in their simplicity and don’t damage the tension-filled atmosphere that the film is so carefully constructing. Some elements come clear a bit too soon, and the theme at play here is familiar enough, but The Gift keeps the suspense high as guilt and innocence are weighed with a heavy thumb on the scale.

Bateman is known as a comedic actor, but he’s also perfected the art of playing the asshole – seriously, he’s approaching J.T. Walsh and Paul Gleason levels of quality onscreen assholery – and he’s given the chance here to unfurl his prickish wings and fly. Simon’s anger and safety concerns regarding Gordo are understandable, and Bateman captures that intense frustration with a sharply-honed domination. Edgerton transforms himself a bit from the buff and capable roles he typically plays to portray a shy and seemingly unstable man who grows before our eyes into a serious threat. He balances both a weakness and a rage making Gordo an unpredictable character.

Hall has the film’s toughest role, and while it straddles the line she keeps Robyn from falling into the generic pool of female victims. We experience most of the film along with her as she takes note of both men’s odd, secretive behavior and then digs for a truth to explain it all away. Both men are menacing her sanity in different ways – Gordo’s possible stalkerish antics have her terrified, Simon’s possible gaslighting efforts have her thinking she’s crazy. Hall risks letting Robyn become nothing but a chew toy being pulled in either direction by the men, but she remains more than that with a smart and empathetic performance.

“The bad things can be a gift,” says Gordo to Simon, and it’s both a threat and a promise of what’s to come. The joy here is that Edgerton’s script isn’t interested in following the normal narrative of what comes next. The anguish and suffering he has in store are more interested in emotional scarring than drawing blood, and that ultimately makes for a more affecting and satisfying thriller – well, depending on how you take the ending.

The Gift is the best kind of present – it’s unexpected.

The Upside: Perfectly cruel; smart tension; solid performances from all three leads

The Downside: Major turns are clearly visible early on; some cheap jump scares; ending is guaranteed to lose some fans

Rob Hunter has been writing for Film School Rejects since before you were born, which is weird seeing as he's so damn young. He's our Chief Film Critic and Associate Editor and lists 'Broadcast News' as his favorite film of all time. Feel free to say hi if you see him on Twitter @FakeRobHunter.