In the midst of a summer filled with mediocre blockbusters, The Gift offers an intriguing alternative to those fed up with superheroes and spies as a surprisingly engaging psychological thriller from first time writer/director Joel Edgerton.
Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have moved to Los Angeles from Chicago to start a new life. Simon has a new job whilst Robyn, a designer, gets to work on decorating their new home. It would appear that Robyn and Simon are a perfect couple. Whilst on a shopping trip to furnish their new home, the pair bump into Gordon Moseley or ‘Gordo’ (Joel Edgerton), who recognises Simon as an old school friend. Despite not initially recognising Gordo himself, Simon’s memory of this long lost acquaintance quickly catches up with him. The old friends exchange details and promise to get together when they find the time.
Soon after, Gordo turns up at Simon and Robyn’s house unannounced with a house warming gift whilst Simon is at work. Being a polite host, Robyn invites Gordo into her home and asks him to wait for Simon to return home so they can have dinner together. Although aware of Gordo’s apparent social awkwardness, Robyn strikes up something of a friendship with the stranger, something which Simon advises her to be cautious about. ‘That guy is odd,’ claims Simon. ‘They used to call him “Gordo the weirdo”‘. Indeed, as Gordo begins to get more and more involved in the lives of Simon and Robyn, it is clear that something doesn’t quite add up. Is Gordo a genuinely sincere guy who simply wants to be friends with the couple, or does he have an agenda? Similarly, what kind of relationship did Simon and Gordo have back in school? Putting to one side Gordo’s peculiarities, it also soon becomes clear that Simon himself may not be the man he first appeared to be.
Billed as a psychological thriller from Blumhouse Productions (the same company behind jump-scare baiting flicks such as the Paranomal Activity and Insidious franchises), the film feels far more sophisticated and thought-out than the company’s recent offerings. Although in many ways The Gift is a throwback to 1970s and 80s exploitation horror/thriller films, the film never indulges itself in the various tropes and clichés of the genre, instead nudging up against them only to subvert or twist their meaning. Admirably, more focus is given to the development of its characters in what is, above all else, a very grounded real-world narrative. Bolstered by the clear talent behind its three central performances (particularly Rebecca Hall’s performance as Robyn) the film feels a cut above similar horror/thriller fare. Edgerton in his writer/director role equally shines, demonstrating a skill for restraint, pacing and the creation of tension. Also praiseworthy is Edgerton’s clear knowledge and utilisation of film history, pairing sly references to pop culture heavyweights like The Shining or Apocalypse Now with the film’s overall indebtedness to world cinema titles like Cache or Old Boy in its thematic concern with the importance and impact of past choices and decisions returning to haunt the present. Gripping throughout, The Gift is something of a rarity nowadays: a competent horror/thriller genre piece which boasts some great acting talent, intelligent writing and proficient direction all without resorting (save for one or two occasions) to cheap horror trickery.