In The Gift, married couple Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move back into Simon’s California hometown after the unexpected loss of their unborn child. The first snaking shots of their new house are an immediate sign of their status. Simon is successful at a well-paying job and is on the verge of a promotion. Robyn is happy doing freelance work from home. Seemingly, life in the pair’s little world is picturesque.
Then there’s Gordo (Joel Edgerton). At first, we only see him from a distance, curiously looking in on the couple as they are shopping, just behind Simon’s shoulder. Eventually he approaches Simon, saying that they went to high school together. Simon is not quick to recognize Gordo and goes the majority of the conversation unsure that Gordo has picked out the right guy.
When Gordo starts appearing at the couple’s house unexpectedly, dropping gifts and smiley face-laced cards on their doorstep, emotions in the pair begin churning. A playful curiosity bleeds into an uncomfortable confusion as Gordo’s visits become more frequent and he starts embedding himself in their lives. The entire dynamic feels off, and Simon and Robyn know it.
What follows from here is a continuing spiral descent through a rabbit hole of deceit on the way to a psychological hellscape. The web of lies entangles you slowly, spinning you in red herring directions. You are constantly spinning, but you never feel dizzy, instead left fully cognizant to witness the gradual deterioration of trust between the major players in the film.
The deliberate pacing of the movie ensures that the spine gets chilled one vertebrate at a time until you are left with no other option but to shiver at the final climactic moments. The sole downside of this pacing technique is that it causes the film to begin with a meandering first act that seems too repetitive when it wants to be setting up for future tension. Building up is certainly necessary, and works astoundingly well, but when the movie isn’t building it is literally choosing to walk in circles.
But the pacing is just the extra layer of whipped cream on the decadent cake that is this movie. The base of the cake is the grounded reality that keeps the movie afloat. Characters are deeply rooted into a reality that is viciously spiraling out of control. They react just as people on the other side of the fourth wall would do, and they do it with an emotional charge that is utterly convincing.
Simon’s fatal character flaw is evident almost from the start, but watching it fester and infect his external world is awesomely terrifying. You can see it crawl through his face, the denial slowly eating away at him. Bateman proves with this performance that his usual comedic persona can have a twisted dramatic bent.
Hall, in particular, gives an outstanding performance. With each psyche-warping revelation, the feeling of anxiety and confused rage emanates from her, traveling by osmosis through the screen and into the viewer.
Perhaps the only downside of the performances is that Edgerton’s character is plagued by its unoriginality. It is a done-to-death archetype of the horror genre. At least The Gift provides an intriguing backstory to the character that allows for dimensionality.
The Gift is perhaps the most terrifying movie of the year thus far. It crawls under your skin with an eerie quiet and then makes a home out of it. It transcends the expected cliches of its genre (except in a few forgivable spots) and provides a suspense-driven psychological horror that you can tell was crafted with care. It gives audiences something that is rare to find in today’s cinema: a thriller that implodes.
The Gift is currently available to stream on Amazon Video here.
Have you seen The Gift? If so, what did you think? Let me know in the comments!
As always, thanks for reading!
–Alex Brannan (@TheAlexBrannan)