(3 ½ stars out of 4)

 

 “The Gift” begins as not a comedy of errors, but a horror-thriller of errors.  While its beats and rhythms are those of a horror movie, the source of all the unease that it generates early on are the system of mores and social niceties that circumscribe upper middle-class existence.  When you meet an old acquaintance that you don’t necessarily want to catch up with as much as they do, are you obliged to give them their number?  A jerk if you don’t have any intention of calling them?  If that person shows up at your house even though you didn’t invite them, are they just being neighborly, or are you obliged to start panicking?  And if they give you a gift, do you have to call them and thank them?

 

 


Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall play a successful, upwardly mobile couple (you’ll find plenty of people in Bozeman that fit the bill) who have just moved to California.  Simon’s a lawyer, and Robyn a designer.  Their house is beautiful, equipped with a koi pond that it remains only to fill.  Their lives seem by any measure to be essentially pristine and unsoiled by anything as backward-looking as a troubled past.  

One day while shopping at a homeware store they run into Gordon, or “Gordo” as he was known when he went to school with Simon some 25 years ago.  As played by Joel Edgerton (who also writes!  And directs!), he comes off as sweetly awkward from the outset, although there are what we might call “red flags”.  Gordon starts giving them gifts and leaving them at their house even though they haven’t given them his address.  His presence isn’t exactly intrusive yet, but it isn’t exactly welcome either.  For some reason, Gordon seems intent on reconnecting with Simon, but Simon is reluctant.  Robyn has a bit more compassion for the guy, and we get hints that she was perhaps made fun of as a teen, and is therefore predisposed (as segments of the movie populace will be) towards giving Gordo a break, especially when she learns that Gordon used to go by the cruelly unflattering “Gordo the weirdo” in his youth.  

But then Gordon’s red flags become glaring beacons, and the audience is firmly in thriller territory.  “The Gift” is at its best when it is playing our sympathies against us, making us question which of the characters deserves the moniker of “bad guy”.  We’ve all been engrained since we were very small children, after all, to select the “bad guy”.  The word typically connotes a flatly evil villain, someone who is evil because they oppose its counterpart, the “hero”.  But movies like “The Gift” (and “Hard Candy”, and the recent, brilliant “Ex Machina”, “Prisoners” and, arguably, Hitchcock’s “Psycho”) make hay out of complicating those categories for us.  

But what gives “The Gift” its distinctive flavor is how it manages to combine that with those aforementioned questions of social nicety.  Almost every character, at one point or another, rifles through the personal belongings of another, forcing us to rank whose invasions of privacy are the most forgivable.  Is it the former addict falling off the wagon by raiding a neighbor’s pharmacopeia?  The couple using the occasion of the absence of the host to explore the house they’ve been invited to for a dinner party?  Or the fellow peering in through the window while he delivers another present?

All of the major players of the small cast, including a neighbor friend of Robyn’s played by the “Fargo” series’ Alison Tolman (as good here as she was there), acquit themselves well.  Bateman’s Simon is a study in just contained rage mixed with bored condescension, while Edgerton’s Gordon is a much more complicated version of a figure we’ve seen in plenty of movies, but the depth makes all the difference.  The same goes for Robyn, who through Rebecca Hall’s performance becomes much more than the shrieking, helpless damsel we’ve seen in any number of similar thrillers.  In fact in many ways her arc is the most complicated of the film, a far cry from the horror movie histrionics we have come to expect from the imperiled housewife role.  

Sometimes successful thrillers hew close to convention, aiming to comfort the viewer in the sure knowledge they’ve seen it all before.  They aren’t unambitious, in fact some (like “The Silence of the Lambs” or “Gone Girl”) are almost epically conventional.  Which isn’t to say they don’t have shocks and plot twists, but that those twists are always informed by the genre they’re culled from.  “The Gift” aims instead to problematize the viewer’s expectations of genre.  The results are twists that feel real, rather than contrived, characters that develop three dimensions even if they start out closely resembling cardboard cutouts we’ve seen before, and a story that manages to give you the queasy feeling that accompanies watching real lives unravel.  

And it does all this while still delivering the basic pleasures of a standard thriller.  If you want to think deeper about it and experience a narrative that questions film ethics in an increasingly complex way, then “The Gift” is all too happy to oblige.  If you would rather just while away a couple hours with a great thriller, “The Gift” is also a precision-engineered and perfectly paced one of those.  But you’d probably better see it regardless.  

Video pick of the week:  This week you should go rent “Orphan Black Season 3”.  Or, if you’re not already addicted, go rent all of the seasons and binge watch them immediately.  Thought-provoking storytelling and virtuoso acting bring something extra to this BBC science fiction series about women who discover they are experimental clones, and that someone wants them dead.  Or, if you’d rather have more oil and blood, try “Wyrmwood: Road of the Dead”, which features zombies on the post-apocalyptic roads of the future.

For more from Joseph Shelton on movies, culture and entertainment, click here.

 

EDITOR'S NOTE: Joseph Shelton is a freelance writer working on his Masters in English Literature at Montana State University.  The only thing better than watching movies, he avers, is arguing about them with like- or unlike-minded folks; drop him a line and tell him just how wrong he is.