Everything looks all right to them in the beginning, but then someone appears out of nowhere, and their life becomes threatened by the presence of this supposedly kind stranger, who begins to look more nefarious than before as time goes by. While reminiscent of those thriller movies about malevolent crackpot intent on terrorizing whoever is unlucky enough to be his prey (such films were pretty popular around the 1980-1990s, you know), “The Gift” takes its time in building its uneasy tension, and then it throws some fresh touches into the plot as it steadily keeps making us disturbed and uncomfortable.
When Simon (Jason Bateman) and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move from Chicago to LA, they seem to have almost everything for their life as an affluent middle-class couple. While Robyn works as a freelance house designer, Simon is soon going to work at some rising security company, and he may get promoted further if everything works as he hopes. In the opening scene, they look around a nice house located in a suburban area around LA, and it does not take much time for them to decide that this will be their new home to live.
Their new neighborhood is incidentally Simon’s hometown, and that is how they happen to encounter Gordo (Joel Edgerton, who also wrote, directed, and co-produced the film). When he spots Simon being with his wife, Gordo instantly recognizes Simon, but Simon initially does not recognize Gordo when Gordo approaches to him like a guy glad to meet his good old friend again after a long time. He does remember Gordo as one of the schoolmates during his high school years, but he is not particularly pleased to see him unlike his wife, who is delighted to meet a person from her husband’s past.
After that accidental encounter, Gordo approaches closer to Simon and Robyn. He sends them a bottle of wine, and then there come other gifts for them one by one. Curious about Gordo, Robyn invites him to a dinner at their house for showing her gratitude, and she begins to like this mild-mannered guy, but Simon is annoyed by Gordo’s persistent presence around him and his wife, though he does not directly show that to Gordo or Robyn. We wonder: were Gordo and Simon really good friends during their old time like Gordo suggests?
Of course, Gordo starts to look very suspicious to both Simon and Robyn – especially when he invites them to a dinner. A couple of disturbing incidents happen not long after a very awkward moment between them, and it is highly possible that Gordo is responsible for both of the incidents. Detectives come for investigation, but they only say that there is nothing they can do about this because of the lack of any substantial evidence to incriminate him.
Now this looks like a classic case of Mad Stalker on the loose, and the movie serves us with several quiet but tense scenes unfolded inside Robyn and Simon’s house. While her husband is at work, Robyn becomes increasingly nervous as it feels like there is someone else beside her in the house, and she even experiences what may be a sort of breakdown moment as being more aware of that insidious possibility day by day.
In the meantime, Robyn and Simon’s relationship becomes more strained and cracked under this stressful circumstance. Something very bad must have happened between Gordo and Simon in the past, and it is apparent that Gordo has an old score to settle with Simon, but Simon does not want to tell anything to his wife, who may be in a serious danger because of him.
The movie toys with our expectation. When we notice that Simon and Robyn has a pet dog, we fear for that dog for a good reason (remember that poor rabbit in “Fatal Attraction” (1987)?), and then we come to worry more about Robyn’s safety when she becomes pregnant later in the story. While two notable false alarm moments in the movie are clichés to the bone, they are handled well enough to surprise us, and one of them actually works as a nice plot turn.
After the lead role in “Kinky Boots” (2005) and a brief but important supporting role in “Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith” (2005), the director/writer Joel Edgerton has been a notable actor to watch through his good performances “Warrior” (2011), “Zero Dark Thirty” (2012), “The Great Gatsby” (2013), and he has also been active as a screenplay writer. “The Square” (2008), which was written by him and directed by his older brother Nash Edgerton, was one of the better thriller films I saw during 2010, and I also liked “The Rover” (2014), a gritty thriller film which was based on the story written by him and its director David Michôd.
In “The Gift”, which is his first feature film, Edgerton shows that he is a competent filmmaker who knows how to engage or grip us through mood and storytelling, and he also draws solid performances from his two co-stars. While Edgerton functions as a constant source of menace and tension, Jason Bateman makes a smooth transition as his character reveals more of a nasty side hidden behind his likable appearance, and Rebecca Hall gradually gains our sympathy as being more than a woman in danger.
As the movie approaches to its finale, Edgerton and his lead performers effectively convey to us how twisted their characters’ situation really is, and the story firmly sticks to its devious plot logic to the end. As the final gift arrives on the doorstep, we come to see that far more clearly than before – and we begin to fear for the inevitability to be unwrapped very soon.