Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words will always hurt you … slowly, painfully, ceaselessly. That old platitude gets a thorny inversion in The Gift, a psychologically potent parable about victimization and vindication that marks an impressive directorial debut for Joel Edgerton — an Australian actor who alternates between heel and hero while also finding time to pen screenplays.
At face value, Edgerton’s film about a suspicious oddball intruding upon a married couple’s carefully manicured life sounds akin to serviceable stalker schlock like Pacific Heights or The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. (Cradle director Curtis Hanson is among the filmmakers Edgerton thanks in the end credits; he’s not above boo-gotcha jumps after all, albeit in moderation). But Edgerton’s script keenly twists our sympathies along with his long, moral knife. Abetted by three exceptional performances (including Edgerton’s), The Gift skillfully and sturdily stands its ground in a gray area where a long trail of compassionless choices, cutting remarks and self-delusion leaves no one unscathed.
Simon (Jason Bateman, in the best performance of his long career) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are an upwardly mobile couple who have recently relocated to Simon’s childhood stomping grounds in California. Actually, it’s more like a retreat from an emotionally wintry encampment in Chicago, where Robyn’s miscarriage and mental anguish, coupled with Simon’s impatience, threatened to undo them.
While shopping to fill their new mid-century modern mansion, they encounter Gordo (Edgerton), a timid, tepid mouse of a man whose only icebreakers are halfhearted waves and sheepish “hellos.” Simon doesn’t recognize him, but Gordo reminds him they went to high school together. As they leave the store, Simon assumes he’s escaped a painfully awkward one-and-done conversation with someone the whole school once called “Gordo the Weirdo.” But they soon find a bottle of expensive wine on their doorstep — a welcome-home gift from Gordo, whom Robyn feels compelled to invite over in return.
For those lucky enough to avoid the trailer’s overabundant revelations, I’ll say only that Gordo’s re-emergence into Simon’s life spins several characters’ lives into increasingly, and irreversibly, punitive territory. The patience with which Edgerton pulls this off may prove problematic to those expecting a sizzle reel of simple scares. But The Gift cannily avoids conventional catharsis while doing enough to quench a casual audience’s thirst for comeuppance; in that regard, it’s reminiscent of Changing Lanes, another thoughtful morality play that transcended marketing materials that made it look like slick junk.
The Gift will also forever change your concept of Bateman’s capabilities. As Simon, he subverts his usual smartass superiority from that of a comedic, cool-headed and rational underdog to a cocky, impudent alpha dog obsessed with distance. “It’s really important not to look back,” Simon tells Robyn, leaving unspoken the ease of avoiding the dazed, bloodied gazes of those he trampled to arrive somewhere. He has pursued this momentum at the expense of honesty, happiness and humility, obsessed with moving forward into a family without ever stopping to consider it may be a horrible idea. Simon is a jerk, yes, but one more complicated than any Bateman has ever attempted, and a monologue in which he lays bare his motivation and rationale is harrowing, mesmerizing stuff.
Meanwhile, Hall excels as a smart woman who gradually awakens to just how deeply she’s tricked herself into happiness and the difficult, but doable, ways in which she can truly attain it. In the milquetoast modesty of Gordo, Robyn sees not a preferable life partner, but a similarly self-jailed emotional prisoner with whom to commiserate. Edgerton gives himself the unshowiest role — a guy whose outward physical appearance is comically meek, with the coif of Murray Hewitt and the confidence of Milton Waddams. Still, he’s furtive and vulnerable enough to futz with your sympathies several times over. Although the film is largely a three-character chamber piece, there are also sharp supporting turns from Allison Tolman (as Robyn’s new friend), P.J. Byrne (as Simon’s workplace rival) and the inimitably weary Wendell Pierce (as a cop who needs not expend any physical energy to explain the endpoint of an investigation Simon requests).
For those paying attention, The Gift telegraphs a good deal of its twists, but the weight of those surprises are beside the point. Edgerton’s film addresses the ramifications of reveling in the relief of learning that those whom we envy are wanting in ways we are not, the dopamine rush of duping yourself to believe you’re a good person when you’re anything but, and the inescapable velocity of the words we say and the beliefs we hold. The Gift does little to reinvent the ways in which it riles us, but it does a damn fine job of keeping us invested, convinced and unsettled.