“The Gift” is a 2015 psychological thriller that follows a young married couple essentially starting their lives over. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move back to Simon’s hometown; buying a new house, entering a new job and most importantly, starting a family. While getting settled, they run into Gordo (writer/producer/director, Joel Edgerton), who is apparently an old classmate of Simon’s. Gordo’s social awkwardness seems quirky at first – strange conversation; harmless, but personal gifts and frequent visits – but soon enough, these quirky habits become creepy. When Simon finally puts a stop to it all, things take a turn for the worse. Soon, Robyn is digging up Simon’s past, and as previous events come to light, the future is seeming less and less bright for Robyn and Simon.
Like so many thrillers that have come before it, one might expect the outcome of “The Gift“ to be completely predictable. It’s a formula as old as time, yeah? A happy couple starting a new life runs into old classmate holding a grudge, revenge is either carried out or squashed by the reformed classmate. The end. Except that’s not the end at all. And that’s not this movie’s formula. For every moment you think you have figured out, there’s a slight twist – one plausible enough to keep you from thinking there could be any other option.
The character outlines seem simple enough: This is who you trust, this is who you distrust, this is who you accept as a catalyst for the plot. But Edgerton doesn’t make it that easy. Just like with people in real life, these characters are three-dimensional, fully formed, complex beings that you can feel multiple emotions towards. So rarely does that occur so completely in film. But, in “The Gift,” it seems to occur naturally – if unsettlingly. And it’s unsettling because you don’t expect to have empathy for the truly bad guy, and you definitely aren’t entirely comfortable feeling anger towards the seemingly good guy. And, once you get comfortable with either of these feelings you realize that everyone exists in this moral middle ground.
As per usual, Bateman manages to play the perfect everyman in Simon, an everyman with a dark, looming center. Through the volatile progression of Simon’s character development, you can never quite forget how easy it is for this man to be anyone you know. Hall’s Robyn, although my least favorite of the characters, was the catalyst for most of the plot progression. Without her, the audience wouldn’t be able to unravel the story; but there was too much, which made it seem like Edgerton in his writing had forgotten that the audience had a brain and didn’t need extra prodding to manipulate their emotions.
And what is a good psychological thriller without a little home invasion? But how can you feel invaded when you have repeatedly invited the invading someone into your home? That is the brilliance in Edgerton’s writing and characterization of Gordo. It’s a constant struggle to keep the rug under your feet, all while realizing that it’s about to get pulled out from under you anyway. Gordo is as complex as “The Gift” itself; never quite falling fully into one characterization or another – and yet fully realizing each aspect of who Gordo was.
Despite my dislike of the use of Robyn’s character in place of the audience’s own ability to read contextual clues, most of “The Gift” is, much like Gordo’s gifts, a nicely wrapped and tidy package. Almost all of the resolutions are hinted at throughout the movie, although some are a bit more abstract than others – leaving complete resolution up to interpretation, making the “The Gift” a most effective thriller. Just when you think you’ve got the solution firmly in hand, you’ll find yourself grasping for a true grip. And just when you think you can sit back and enjoy the movie, you catch yourself sitting on the edge of your seat wondering where all your formulas went wrong.
Truly, “The Gift” is an amazing study in audience manipulation. I don’t believe I have seen a film, this year, so thoroughly manipulate an audience’s empathy, trust, and disdain as well as this one has. It’s quite impressive and something I’m still considering days after having seen it. “The Gift” is uniquely intelligent in how it presents ethical situations to the audience and forces them to question how they might deal with similar conflicts, but never presumes to present a final “right or wrong” solution. Because there truly isn’t one. Which feeds right back into the complexity of the characters and their moral ground.