Nobody likes a bully. Especially a past victim with a long memory.
Figuring out who’s the bully and who’s the victim is part of the mystery in “The Gift,” a satisfying directorial debut from writer, producer and star Joel Edgerton. While it doesn’t break any new ground, the first feature from new studio STX Entertainment succeeds as the kind of unsettling psychological thriller that could inspire one to double-check the locks on the front door.
Simon (Jason Bateman) and wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) just relocated from Chicago to his hometown of Los Angeles, where he has a great new job and an impending promotion. Simon insists his wife not work right away so they start a family.
While out shopping, the couple bumps into Simon’s old high school classmate Gordo (Edgerton). Shy and awkward, he re-introduces himself to Simon, who didn’t recognize him. They exchange pleasantries and innocuously part ways.
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Suddenly, a bottle of wine appears on the couple’s doorstep, a gift from Gordo, though they hadn’t given him their address. Then he pops by unannounced, ostensibly to be helpful. More spontaneous gifts follow – he fills their pond with koi – along with a dinner invitation.
To Robyn, Gordo seems lonely. To Simon, he seems delusional. He remembers they called him Weirdo back in high school.
When Simon insists they cut ties, Gordo responds with an ominous reference to their shared history, which inspires Robyn to examine what happened between them as teenagers.
She becomes the protagonist in the film’s second half, an amateur detective investigating her husband’s past. The more she discovers, the more she distrusts him. Gordo doesn’t seem so solid, either.
Along the way there’s a pond of dead fish, a disappearing dog and a scary shower sequence; nerves ratcheted to the max for each by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans’ doom-heralding score.
Edgerton’s film plays as homage to the polished, stylized thrillers of the 1980s and ’90s, when things went bad for yuppies. It’s even set close to the period, as shown by characters’ reliance on landlines and CDs.
The sprawling, glass-walled, pond-fronted house Robyn and Simon live in is so gorgeously aspirational, it’s practically a character in the film, an ever-present symbol of wealth and promise. Gordo’s class envy shows when he tries to outshine their home with his own.
Edgerton keeps his screenplay timely by using bullying as a backdrop, imagining what happens to teenage tormentors and their targets years later. He also draws a modern wife who’s equally empowered to stand on her own.
The three leads make their performances look effortless, a credit to Edgerton’s direction. He’s eerily on point as a quiet lurker with a menacing side. Hall is commanding as a confident yet vulnerable wife, conflicted about the man she married. Bateman deliciously plays against type as a manipulative, back-slapping executive who will step on anyone to get ahead.
“The Gift” takes a leap at its conclusion that’s a little hard to believe, but it doesn’t undo the story’s main theme, which Gordo might creepily sum up as “what happens when you poison other people’s minds with ideas.”
Like it might be a good idea to check the locks.
Cast: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton
Rated R (for language)