Starring: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton
Rated R for Language
Not to be confused with the 2000 film starring Cate Blanchett
"You may be done with the past, but the past ain't done with you." - GordoThe best thrillers are set in the real. Movies like "Fatal Attraction," a spiritual cousin to "The Gift," scare us because they create suspense out of characters like us who do things we would do. Joel Edgerton's directorial debut is built upon awkward situations that the majority of people have found themselves in (one way or another).
Simon (Bateman) and Robyn (Hall) have just moved to California. They were living in Chicago, but have relocated for "a new start." They have just bought a cushy new house to go along with Simon's fancy (and high-paying) new job, and while out shopping for things to fill it with, a man goes up to Simon and says hello. His name is Gordo (Edgerton), who went to school with Simon "like, 80 years ago." Simon doesn't remember him, but he seems pleasant enough. When they get home, they find a bottle of wine on their doorstep from Gordo, welcoming them to their new home. Soon, Gordo has inserted themselves into their lives. While Robyn admits that Gordo is odd, she thinks he's nice enough and doesn't mind him. Simon, however, is unsettled, and wants him to go away. But when Simon tells Gordo not to contact them, things take a dark turn.
Joel Edgerton is one of the great Australian imports. Although not as famous, he is easily as talented as Mel Gibson or Nicole Kidman (his 2011 film, "Warrior," shows that he can be just as powerful and magnetic as Tom Hardy, his co-star for that film). His efforts behind the camera, however, are not as strong. He wrote the short story that was turned into last year's "artistic" garbage, "The Rover," but to be fair, he didn't contribute to the screenplay. He did co-write "The Square" with his brother Nash, and that movie was even worse. But here he proves that he is a gifted filmmaker, able to create tension out of everyday occurrences. For example, at one point, Gordo shows up at the house, looking for Simon during the middle of the day. Robyn tells him that Simon is at work. Gordo apologizes and compliments the house. He doesn't go away, which signals to us that he wants to be invited in, which Robyn eventually does. What's worth noting about this sequence is how Edgerton handles it. The moment of awkwardness is held long enough to raise awareness to the audience, but not enough to show that Robyn is, or should be, concerned. After all, her husband knows him, and she's proud of her new house.
"The Gift" is built upon moments like that: everyday behavior that is tweaked and massaged to make it unsettling. Edgerton is keen on not sensationalizing the material or highlighting the scares. Both Simon and Robyn, and to a lesser extent Gordo, behave like real people. While there is certainly pleasure to be had in treating something like this in a more expressive fashion ("The Gift" is not as scary as "Fatal Attraction" or "Fear"), Edgerton proves that a skilled director can wring out suspense by reflecting reality more closely.
It sure helps that the acting is strong. Jason Bateman mined his "Arrested Development" persona long enough for it to become incredibly irritating, but these days, he's taken his career in a different direction. He's taken more dramatic roles with "Disconnect" and "This is Where I Leave You," neither of which I saw, sadly. Simon plays the ideal everyman, but plays him in such a way that when we find out the secrets of his past (and present), we still believe it. Rebecca Hall, a British actress who has "Future Oscar Winner" written all over her, is very good as Robyn. Sporting a flawless American accent, Robyn is also the ideal everywoman. She loves Simon, but his odd behavior regarding Gordo and a mysterious phrase of one of Gordo's letters ("letting bygones be bygones") makes her suspicious enough to do some investigating. And Joel Edgerton balances the line between benevolent but odd and creepy. Because we know what kind of movie this is, we know that he's up to no good, but the tension comes from how he keeps us guessing as to how the characters will react. He's creepy enough to raise suspicion but not enough to be genuinely scared. According to an interview, this is what Edgerton was aiming for, and he nails it.
That it doesn't reach a 4/4 is probably because of the movie it's trying to be. Edgerton wants to create a thriller about average people in identifiable situations, but there's really only so much tension that can be generated from that. A little sensationalism is necessary to up the ante to its peak. That said, I liked how Edgerton took the chance and didn't go down the road to a bloody, violent climax. This is much more honest and still suspenseful. The revelation of Gordo's motives is a slight letdown, but the ending hints at something far more terrible.
We don't see many thrillers these days. Just superhero movies, tween romances, and reboots. "The Gift" may not be the next "Fatal Attraction," but is gripping and makes you guess. It makes you wish that Hollywood still made movies like this.