Is it possible for a movie to be consistently smart, full of clever subversion, palpable atmosphere and fascinating ideas and yet not quite work just because of some structural and tonal confusion? In his directorial debut “The Gift,” Joel Edgerton (who also wrote and starred in the thriller “Felony”) has created a film that’s admirable in its unconventionality but jarring in ways that negate its intelligent ideas.
Jason Bateman (“Bad Words”) and Rebecca Hall (“Transcendence”) star as Simon and Robyn Callen, a married couple moving into their new home in California. One day, Simon runs into Gordo (Edgerton again), an old friend from high school, and over the course of the film’s first half, Gordo becomes clingy, showing up at Simon and Robyn’s house at unexpected times and leaving them an abundance of gifts they never asked for.
The premise of “The Gift” has been compared to those of thrillers like “Fatal Attraction,” and the first half of the film proceeds in ways you’d expect, with Gordo’s behavior becoming increasingly creepy and threatening. There’s a foreboding atmosphere, with long shots of the Callens’ opulent house through windows suggesting an unforeseen observer. Robyn becomes afraid that Gordo is a real threat, and jump scares tease the inevitable moment when Gordo’s wrath will finally be unleashed.
Then, right when the viewer is primed to expect the escalating conflict to crescendo into all-out madness, everything stops, Gordo disappears for a long stretch of screen time and Robyn spends a chunk of the movie looking into her husband’s past. It’s not much of a spoiler to say that Simon’s not exactly what he seems, because even from early scenes, Simon oozes superiority, mocking Gordo and calling him words like “disgusting” even when his behavior is hopelessly needy at worst. He’s never an outright villain, though. There’s never a huge twist when Simon tries to kill his own wife. “The Gift” is a patient character study of Simon, showing how the return of Gordo allows Robyn to see that much like “Gordo the Weirdo,” Simon hasn’t changed at all since his days as a high school bully.
The problem is that the mashup of genres leaves the viewer confused about what exactly we’re supposed to be watching. It’s okay to have a structure that surprises the viewer, but when you watch a movie you still want to have some indication of what the overall path you’re going to take is, and when the movie suddenly switches from a slow-burn thriller to a psychological drama about an asshole in denial, it feels like the movie is following up on a promise it never made in the first place. The 108-minute running time is pretty tight narratively, but it feels overlong just because it’s impossible to get a sense for what the endpoint is.
The odd thing is that none of this is uninteresting at all. The viewer is constantly thrown for loops as Robyn uncovers secrets from Simon’s past. Simon’s charismatic exterior is peeled away to reveal his true nature, and it’s pulled off fantastically by Jason Bateman, who’s always had notes of darkness in his performances without ever becoming this openly loathsome. The idea of a morally gray pair of opposing antagonists is a strong one, more complex than the typical knife-wielding creep hunting down the married couple. Same goes for the idea of past transgressions coming back to haunt the characters like in a Shakespearean tragedy.
It’s just that all these theoretically captivating ideas are thrown in towards the end in a movie that never prepares its audience to grapple with them. It’s difficult to reconcile the manipulative jump scares of the stereotypical first half with the surprising nuance of the second half, or to reconcile the slow-paced atmospheric tension of the buildup with the belated gruesome final twist that deflates a lot of the complexity the film has created. It’s hard to justify the ominous score and long, tense takes with the simple revelation that Simon was a dick in high school. It’s not that larger-than-life melodrama and horror can’t be infused with subtle thematic value, as proven by much-praised movies like “It Follows” or “The Babadook.” It’s that “The Gift” seems to never decide whether to go for all-out insanity or understated character-building, and it doesn’t manage to juggle both in an organic and satisfying way.
In his directorial debut, Joel Edgerton has established himself as a writer-director to look out for in the future. He has some impressive ideas and striking technical skills, from his synthesis of camera and sound to the naturalistic direction of his talented cast. “The Gift,” though, is a compelling misstep.