The Gift

Movie Information

The Story:  A couple's life is thrown into increasing disarray and dread by the arrival of someone from the husband's increasingly murky past. The Lowdown: A well-judged, slickly-made thriller that mostly eschews the trappings of the genre for more psychological unease and a disturbingly dark vision of the world.
Genre: Mystery Thriller
Director: Joel Edgerton
Starring: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Allison Tolman, Tim Griffin, Busy Philipps
Rated: R



Joel Edgerton’s debut feature, The Gift, is a deeply disturbing cerebral thriller that is seemingly a little too disturbing for some viewers who are, I believe, perhaps reading too deeply into the film’s climax. Oh, it offers a supremely creepy — even distasteful — ending, but whether it has quite the murky depths that some are seeing, I am less certain. Obviously, this can only be discussed in the most general terms in a review — after all, the film has a mystery at its center. Even so, I am hard-pressed to come up with any reading that suggests the slightest evidence that the film endorses the behavior (and possible behavior) uncovered in the course of the story. Just because the behavior depicted is repugnant doesn’t mean the film is.




On the surface — and for part of the film’s length — The Gift plays like a fairly straightforward thriller in which a couple is menaced by some, probably unbalanced, figure from the past. In this case, the couple is Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) who have just relocated from Chicago to Simon’s hometown of Los Angeles. This is all very movie-ish, too, since they move right into one of those Architectural Digest-worthy houses that seem to proliferate in such movies. (The lesson of 1950s producer Ross Hunter about the value of leaving a body at the bottom of an elaborate marble staircase rather than a rickety wooden one is still with us.) This is supposed to be the beginning of a new life for them — one with a rosy future for Simon on the corporate ladder, and one where they can put Robyn’s miscarriage and her subsequent depression behind them.




What they have not reckoned on is the sudden appearance of Gordo (Joel Edgerton), an overly friendly, overly solicitous remnant of Simon’s past — an old high school acquaintance who Simon claims not to remember. Naturally, Gordo is not what he appears to be. It’s easy to guess early on that he has an agenda that has nothing to do with reconnecting with an old friend. It’s also easy to see that Gordo and Simon share a secret that is only hinted at — mostly by Gordo and mostly for the benefit of Robyn. This secret and the growing realization that Simon is also not what he seems is what makes The Gift more intriguing and complex than a straightforward thriller with a nice couple in peril. This is no basic Hollywood thriller like, say, John Schlesinger’s Pacific Heights (1990). The Gift is more European in tone and story — something along the lines of Dominik Moll’s With a Friend Like Harry… (2000), to which it bears more than a passing resemblance.




Much of what works about The Gift has little to do with Edgerton’s occasional (and effective) use of shock effects (usually of the false scare variety) or even Gordo’s creepy agenda. Rather, the strength of the film comes from Robyn’s deepening suspicion that Simon is not the person she thinks he is. Both she and the viewer are sometimes led down the garden path with clever bits of understandable misdirection (a requirement of the mystery format). But the truly chilling aspect of this is less in what she uncovers than the fact that her discoveries ultimately tell her things she might already have guessed — things that perhaps tell her as much about herself, her problems and the life she leads as they do about Simon.




This brings us back to the film’s slightly controversial ending. Yes, it’s disturbing — and, yes, it involves both Simon and Gordo using Robyn to their own ends without regard for her. But it’s also less directly about misogyny than the movie’s overall bleak worldview. The fact that aspects of it have offended some is even possibly a measure of the film’s effectiveness as a critique of modern society. It offers no comfort. It doesn’t even offer a solution — merely another mystery that we can discuss, but which we will never know the answer to. Rated R for language.


About Ken Hanke
Head film critic for Mountain Xpress from December 2000 until his death in June 2016. Author of books "Ken Russell's Films," "Charlie Chan at the Movies," "A Critical Guide to Horror Film Series," "Tim Burton: An Unauthorized Biography of the Filmmaker."

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8 thoughts on “The Gift

  1. Edwin Arnaudin

    I was hoping you’d shout out the answer to Gordo’s bar trivia question, but it was not meant to be.

  2. Bob Voorhees

    I really liked this flick. Except for the “doggie returns” scene and one or two others, it avoided the cheap, recherche tricks of most Hollywood thrillers and horror shows. The ending mystified me a bit but then the plot depends a bit on circumstance and this creates a somewhat confusing ending. I guess the key is the key to it. (The red herring of the spurned employee’s tossing a rock through the window, then hanging about outside to be pummeled was simply laughable) The movie reminded me of Edgar Allan Poe’s “Philosophy of Composition” in which he argues that the end of a work of literature should be its emotional effect on the reader (one of Romanticism’s central edicts, I suppose). So, perhaps the plot, while, somewhat torturous in places (especially the end) might well have been secondary to the director, if he had something like Mr. Poe’s idea in mind.

  3. Beyonce

    So who do you believe is the father, Ken? I don’t understand why Gordo, at the end, failed to give a straightforward answer to Simon on the phone. Why flip-flop from “no” to “yes”? Why was Simon himself unsure?

    • Ken Hanke

      I have no idea who the father is. That’s unable to be known. Gordo’s whole point is to torment Simon as much as possible, so he’s not going to give him a straight answer — just like the video is inconclusive. How can Simon possibly be sure?

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