I have a strict policy of avoiding information about new movies I haven’t seen yet. I eat up the trailers for the next Star Wars and Marvel movies like anyone else, but there’s something about going in cold to a new movie that lets you figure the movie out without anyone else’s opinions rattling around in your head. This turned out to work really well for “The Gift,” a movie that expertly uses mystery, suspense and slow-burn reveals to craft a dark and disturbing story.
The film is a psychological thriller directed by Joel Edgerton, who stars alongside Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall. A general problem with horror movies is that there are easy ways to be really gross without being terrifying, but what’s great about “The Gift” is that it is a horror-thriller that knows how to manipulate the regular tropes in order to make viewers’ skin crawl.
Without giving much away, the movie is about a young-ish married couple moving to a new home in California where we find that not everyone is who they seem to be. Husband Simon (Bateman) has a new job, and wife Robyn (Hall) continues running her design firm out of the house. But when Simon has a chance meeting with Gordo (Edgerton), an old classmate who seems to know things about Simon that Robyn never learned, an awkward battle of social obligation ensues: Gordo has a predilection for giving gifts, and while at the first the couple reluctantly return his advances, Gordo can’t seem to leave the two alone. Some gifts aren’t wanted, and some can’t easily be returned.
This premise could work for a number of different genres, and while psychological thriller might be the official category, the movie swirled many elements from different genres into the finished product: it uses horror techniques but also uses lush architecture shots that could come from any art-house film. The drip-by-drip flow of character development could fit in any good drama or mystery flick as well. Not surprisingly then, the movie’s main strength is its genre savviness, modifying tropes like the “nice guy who is creepier than he seems” bit over and over until you have no idea what will hit you next.
The trailer shows Bateman and Edgerton frequently, but the true main character is Robyn, and her camera shots switched from claustrophobic horror angles that hide any peripheral vision from the viewer to stationary, voyeuristic long shots. You really feel for her: are her fears all in her head? At the same time, the voyeurism forces you behind the eyes of whomever (or whatever) is peering around corners and through faraway windows.
While the overall ambience certainly feels paranoid, some sets were shot without any horror in them. Simon and Robyn’s house is gorgeous, which is demonstrated right away in the first scene a realtor gives the couple a tour. The realtor gushes about the house’s huge floor-to-ceiling windows and open floor plan, which seems like trivial information in the first scene (I certainly forgot about them in about 30 seconds), but so much of the movie is shot in the house that I developed a real familiarity with their home, and this added another layer of creepiness because eventually it started feeling like someone was creeping around my own house. Also, the big windows seem a lot less charming when you think someone is stalking you.
As the story develops, the psychological aspect of the movie develops in several ways. The dissolution of sanity is felt most strongly in Hall’s character, as her paranoia and past tendencies become too strong to ignore. Her progressive loss of trust for Gordo, her husband and her own mind again runs parallel to the actual plot, making everything that happens have two or three layers. I personally followed her paranoia most closely: was that knife always sitting on the counter? Was the water already running in the kitchen sink? Why do I keep hearing something in the nursery? This is made more striking as Simon is heavily in denial, assuring his wife that nothing is wrong and that trusting him is the best thing for her psyche.
As these elements bring the stakes higher and as the characters are unwrapped and revealed one ribbon at a time, the intelligence of the movie manifests in unexpected character developments and revelations and not in a whodunnit-style shocker ending or a bloodbath climax.
Between the nervous teeth-grinding and uncomfortable seat-shifting, several concepts develop alongside the action. The complexities of truth, deception, paranoia and the refusal of the past to go quietly all come out to play, and I found myself split between the three characters. I identified with Gordo’s desire for catharsis after decades of silence, Robyn’s relentless search for the truth and Simon’s desperate wish for the past to remain the past, but I wasn’t completely attached to any of the three as one fact after another became clear.
The slow reveal of personalities and the past make “The Gift” an awesome mixture of thriller and character study, and all three performances were very strong, especially Bateman’s, who I haven’t seen play against type this well since his role as asshole musician in Juno. I can’t wait to see what else Edgerton has in store as a director.