Directed by: Joel Edgerton
Premise: A married couple has a chance encounter with the husband’s high school classmate. The old acquaintance begins inserting himself into the couple’s lives with increasingly erratic behavior.
What Works: The Gift is a movie that starts as one thing and ends up as quite another. Oftentimes that kind of reversal is obnoxious and can unravel the entire story, as it has in many of the films of M. Night Shyamalan. But when it’s done right, as it is in The Gift, a reversal of expectation is not only clever but enriches the experience of watching the film and makes viewers reconsider the assumptions they brought to it. The Gift concerns a married couple, played by Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall, who have relocated with the intention of starting a new life with a new job and eventually a new family. There they meet one of the husband’s high school classmates, played by Joel Edgerton, and he inserts himself into their lives. The three leads of the movie provide very strong performances. As of late, Jason Bateman has regularly played mean and unlikable characters and he does that very well. What is interesting about The Gift is that Bateman’s unlikability isn’t apparent on the outset. Rather, the true nature of his character gradually reveals itself over the course of the story and the filmmakers are able to initially disguise it through the viewer’s expectations. The movie begins in a way that reminds viewers of thrillers such as Single White Female and Cape Fear and that disposes us to see the characters in a certain way. Bateman plays it just right and the film is the story of his character overcome by the sins of the past. Rebecca Hall is cast as the wife and she has an interesting and in some ways contradictory part to play. On the one hand her role is partly the woman in peril and there are requisite scenes of her responding to strange noises in an empty house. But Hall’s character also demonstrates some empathy for her stalker. She can see that there is some deep seeded pain that motivates his behavior and the tension between her fear and her empathy comes to impact the marriage. The couple has a complex relationship that is far more interesting than most cinematic depictions of marital life. The antagonist of The Gift is played by Joel Edgerton, who also wrote and directed the picture. Edgerton’s character is the inverse of Bateman; we’re disposed to distrust him because of our previous experience with this kind of movie but the plotting makes us reconsider those presumptions.
What Doesn’t: Like any film that’s predicated on a narrative twist, the reversal strains the credibility of the story. The Gift has two surprises, one that is revealed gradually and makes sense in relation to the preceding material. The other twist is a shocker that is unveiled at the very end. The filmmakers don’t pull off this last reversal as well—there is really no way to do so because it is so outlandish—and it is the kind of twist that raises all sorts of other issues for the story. For one, the revelation in the finale is more than a little bit incredible and it creates some logical problems for the story. But the ending of The Gift is also problematic in the way that it cavalierly suggests sexual abuse. This pushes the tone of The Gift into an entirely new area that is considerably darker and more serious than the pulp thriller sensibilities of the rest of this picture. The Gift is never explicit or overtly violent but there are aspects of this movie that are profoundly ugly and the filmmakers don’t take full stock of the implications of that awfulness. As satisfying as the movie is, there is a sense that the filmmakers use the implications of sexual abuse in a way that cheapens the material.
Bottom Line: The Gift is a smart thriller that consistently upends the viewer’s expectations and does so in a way that is mostly satisfying. The film is also a solid directorial debut from Joel Edgerton.
Episode: #556 (August 23, 2015)