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.