“The Gift” is old-fashioned in the way it conjures up scares. It’s filled with creepy characters who are one emotional jolt from going over the edge, scares that come more through psychological twists and more plot curves.
It doesn’t rely on the loud orchestration of a creepy soundtrack, bloody images or ghastly scenarios to move the audience. Its Hitchcockian approach creates tension and scares. You won’t go running from the theater, but you will look at the person sitting next to you in a very different way.
First-time director and writer Joel Edgerton establishes a normal setting to unleash his deeply complicated character study. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have moved to Los Angeles to get away from bad memories and events. This idyllic looking couple needs a fresh start.
Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are one of those successful, obnoxiously perfect couples. They’ve moved to Southern California from Chicago for Simon’s new job, relocating in an obnoxiously perfect midcentury modern house in the suburbs.
A random run-in introduces Gordo (Joel Edgerton), a socially awkward former classmate who remembers Simon, though Simon doesn’t remember him. Gordo seems a little creepy right off the bat. That’s about to get worse.
“The Gift” is the feature debut of Edgerton as writer-director. The Aussie has been a regular character actor — notably in the excellent Australian crime drama “Animal Kingdom” — but I don’t think anything would have had me expecting much from his debut. He’s certainly drawing from a wealth of great influences. “Fatal Attraction” is obvious (or any other creepy stalker-y movie), but there are so many nods to other movies, it’s fun to count. He’s also comfortable working both the slow-building tension of Hitchcock and mixing in some perfectly timed scares that are really scary.
What really sets “The Gift” apart, though, is a story that seems deceptively simple and predictable that then defies those expectations. It’s both a satisfying popcorn thriller and a complex morality tale.
Edgerton is spectacularly creepy as Gordo, and Hall’s Robyn gives the movie its needed heart and moral compass. The real surprise here is Bateman, who is unexpectedly perfect in a non-comedic role.
Director Alfred Hitchcock always selected the perfect venue for his stories to unfold, whether it be a bedroom window or a national monument. Edgerton follows Hitchcock’s lead masterfully, as he’s selected the perfect location for his emotional games to be played. The house used for the film is like a gigantic fishbowl: No matter how hard those inside try, they can’t hide from the outside world.
“The Gift” has one last great strength. Edgerton has created a movie that respects the intelligence of the audience. He’s created an ending that will spark debates and that’s a blessing in the summer plot doldrums where everything gets wrapped up with a loud bang or big scare.
The film asks the audience to think and Edgerton has given them plenty to ponder.