Film / Theatre Reviews - Reviews

The Gift


Note: The Gift is best enjoyed without the mildest of spoilers. Just to let you know.

Even when playing entirely reasonable characters, Jason Bateman tends to come off like a bit of an asshole. His performances usually radiate a faint smugness or superiority – understandable as the token straight man amongst buffoons, idiots and Tobias Funke, licensed analrapist. The Gift, the feature directorial debut by Joel Edgerton, the Australian actor who wrote The Rover, expertly mines Bateman’s reserves of smarmy unlikability, as one half of an upper middle class couple starting a new life in the Los Angeles suburbs. In pure horror movie fashion – it’s produced by Jason Blum, who’s worked on mid-level genre stuff like Sinister, Ouija and Insidious – we open on a cheerful estate agent showing the couple their magazine-aesthetic house. ‘It’s a fresh start’, Simon assures his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) a little too insistently. Things, you suspect, will not end well for these two.

While out shopping they have a chance encounter with ‘Gordo’ (Edgerton, unrecognizable from his bronze man-god in Ridley Scott’s Exodus), a old high school classmate of Simon’s, who initially struggles to place the stranger. They make polite and vague plans to meet up. Later they find a bottle of wine with a bow on their doorstep. Then Gordo appears on their doorstep while Robyn’s home alone. And he just keeps showing up. He’s a little over-eager and pathetic, with the sheepish look of one of life’s losers, his admiration of their shiny life tinged with an edge of envy or hostility. The set-up threatens to go full-on Cable Guy, but the film veers off in unexpected, more satisfying, directions, building a sturdy atmosphere of domestic dread and pulling some nasty surprises out of the bag.

Relying on uncomfortable tension rather than jump-scares (though there is one belter, jolting me into screaming a curse word in the busy theatre), Edgerton’s script uses Gordo’s intrusion into the couple’s lives as a way of picking at already-existing wounds, sharing out its villainous stock amongst its male leads and forcing the wife to twist and bend in the middle. Home all day freelancing and resting after a miscarriage back in Chicago, she’s going stir-crazy, always anticipating another drop-in from their new friend, whose behaviour gets more and more unsettling. Sympathetic to the socially awkward, she’s willing to give him the benefit of the doubt, but her husband is less forgiving, dismissing him as a weirdo and making jokes to his new corporate work buddies. A mean streak is bubbling to the surface, flashes of rage underneath the Nice Guy garb. Narratives of social intrusion and yuppie stalker horror tend not to give the wives much agency, treating them as part of the domestic artifice under attack, protected by one man from another. But The Gift displays a satisfying impatience with cliches, bringing Robyn’s steely vulnerability to the centre in the middle section and layering on the housewife anxiety in ways that recall Polanski’s Rosemary.

To reveal too much about how the story unfolds would be unkind, but it keeps calling the audience’s bluff right to the end, displaying a sly knowingness about genre expectations. The talented Edgerton deserves immense credit for putting together something smarter and more, well, insidious, than the blood-lettering marketing suggests. And thank God someone, finally, has done something real with Bateman. The role is, you might say, a real gift. Conor Smyth

The Gift (108 min, certificate 15) is on general release.


Conor Smyth is the Film Editor at The Thin Air and regular Banterflix contributor. Follow him @csmythrun.