One of the most brilliant and unnerving thrillers to hit mainstream theaters in some time, “The Gift” marks the writing/directing feature debut of Joel Edgerton, who made his mark starring in such films as “Warrior” and “Animal Kingdom”, and has proven equally effective on both sides of the camera here. He’s penned a memorably haunting role for himself as the awkward and potentially unstable Gordon Moseley, a guy who may or may not be seeking retribution for something that happened in his past, where his wardrobe choices still seem to be trapped.
The story centers on married couple Simon and Robyn Callen (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall), who’ve just relocated from Chicago to a California suburb just north of where Simon grew up. Simon is in line for a big promotion at his job, where he sells high-end security systems to big corporations, while Robyn maintains a design business from their plush new home in the hills.
Not long after the move, while in the midst of picking out furniture, they are approached by Gordon, who identifies Simon as an acquaintance from high school some 25 years back. At first at a loss, Simon eventually recognizes the man as “Gordo”, later sharing with Robyn that his classmates used to call him “Gordo the Weirdo”. Simon takes his phone number with no intention of ever calling him, anxious to remove himself from an awkward conversation.
But awkward quickly progresses into uncomfortable when Gordo shows up at their house bearing gifts while Simon is at work. Robyn, not sharing her husband’s cynicism, is compelled to give him a tour of the house, which leads to dinner with the Callens, where Gordon regales Robyn with stories of Simon’s run as class president and his ability to always get what he wants. A subtle resentment starts to rear its ugly head: “Simon says, beautiful new home. Simon says, beautiful wife. I’m happy for you.”
It’s clear that Gordon is harboring some horrible secret, but “The Gift” is less about finding out what that is (though I can’t recall dreading the answer this much since the conclusion of David Fincher’s “Seven”) than it is about revealing the true nature of its characters — none of whom are particularly easy to decipher. After Gordon invites them to his home for a dinner party with another couple, who mysteriously bail at the last minute, and suspecting that something is wildly amiss when Gordo excuses himself for an urgent work phone call, Simon attempts to break off the relationship, despite Robyn’s objections. From there, “The Gift” transforms fully into the terrifying and unpredictable psychological whirlwind promised in the first act; it is cause for our imaginations to run wild, squirming in our seats based almost solely on atmosphere and spoken word. It was so good I almost had to leave the theater.
You won’t be able to take your eyes off Edgerton — in part due to the painted-on early ’90s hair and goatee and outdated Member’s Only-style jacket — but mainly because he consistently leaves us feeling uncertain about what his character is capable of, defying the stalker-movie stereotype at every turn. As the tension mounts to an almost unbearable degree, the film, which is masterfully shot to feed on our must fundamental fears and paranoia, constantly challenges the audience as the story unfolds like such a debacle might develop in reality. In his capacity as director, Edgerton has as clear vision of how to sustain suspense without the need for cheap gimmicks; this is a mature psychological thriller from start to finish (though it’s not above giving us a few jolts for good measure) attaining a level of intensity that could easily be compared to genre masters like Kubrick and Hitchcock.
It’s not a stretch to say that this is a highlight of all three of the primary actors’ careers, as they are nearly perfect in their roles: Bateman, keeping Simon’s potential character flaws on that fragile periphery, is riveting; Hall gives a bravura performance as Robyn, who seems to carry some heavy baggage of her own; and Edgerton, as creepy as Gordo is, establishes just the right sliver of relatability, so we might question not only the nature of the situation, but also consider the social epidemic from which it spawned. Just imagine how terrifying it would have been had the character of Del Griffith been written into “Fatal Attraction”.