THIS LOW-PROFILE INDEPENDENT FILM GIVES MORE THAN EXPECTED
Australian actor Joel Edgerton has performed in dozens of projects on both television and the silver screen, but The Gift marks his first time directing a feature film. He also appears on the other side of the camera as a supporting character, but his contributions to the work don’t end there. In addition to producing The Gift, he penned its original screenplay. All of that suggests that Mr. Edgerton largely drove the project forward with a specific vision. The crisp, sure-handed execution of the film clearly demonstrates as much, showcasing the director’s ability to deftly handle the nuances of a well-observed script that commingles the styles and content of a family drama and a psychological thriller with the tropes of a horror movie.
The Gift begins with a fairly standard plot device. Married couple Simon and Robyn Callem (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) have just relocated to southern California, to a home not far from where the husband spent his childhood. The pair seek a “fresh start,” though it is unclear what’s happened in the past for them to warrant such a desire. Before long, while out shopping to furnish their new house, the couple encounter Gordon Moseley (Joel Edgerton), who cautiously approaches Simon and identifies himself as a former classmate. The interaction feels a bit strained, in part because Simon does not immediately recognize his erstwhile school acquaintance, but also because Gordon behaves meekly, suggesting his general discomfort in social situations. With a goatee and a dark mop of unkempt hair, a rumpled black jacket, and a dazed stare, he looks as though he’s had scant experience relating to other human beings.
The encounter unfolds politely enough, with Simon soon referring to Gordon as “Gordo” and telling him that he looks completely different from their school days. Simon asks for Gordon’s telephone number, pledging to call so that they can catch up. Neither Robyn nor her husband pay attention to the fact that they verbally provide the store clerk with their home address in order to schedule a delivery of their larger purchases, but Gordon readily could have. The path ahead suddenly seems obvious, especially to regular moviegoers: the socially maladroit man, a former schoolmate of the husband, will appear again—and again, and again—unnerving Simon and Robyn to the point where they will have to take up some kind of urban battle against this peculiar fellow. It’s a familiar story in the modern cinematic world, and not a particularly compelling one.
Cut to another day, when Simon goes off in his gleaming luxury car to work at his new job, while Robyn stays home to unpack their moving boxes and settle the couple into their new home. She opens a carton and pulls out an infant’s colorful mobile, delivering the first clue to the reason for their move from Chicago to Los Angeles. The Callems do not have a child, and so the toy hints at a possible miscarriage, or perhaps an inability for them to conceive. This is further supported when Robyn meets their neighbors, Lucy and Ron (Allison Tolman and Adam Lazarre-White), who have a baby of their own; Robyn is plainly drawn to the infant, revealing her own strong maternal longings.
And then, as anticipated, Gordon shows up, uninvited, at the Callems’ house. In the shower at the time—and thus in a particularly vulnerable state—Robyn cannot answer the doorbell, so Gordon leaves a bow-clad bottle of wine on the front step, along with a note of welcome. The couple wonder how Gordon learned their address, but they are appreciative of the gift, agreeing that Simon will call to thank him.
Soon after, Robyn visits Lucy, with whom she shares some recent details about her life. Before moving, Robyn endured a pregnancy that “didn’t end well,” and that subsequently sent her into “a bit of a rough patch.” The information about the character does not come as a shock. It’s not immediately clear how this will serve the overall tale being told, which quickly moves ahead in an unsurprising manner: Gordon once more appears at Robyn and her husband’s home. This time, she see him as he approaches their door; the midcentury modern house sports numerous floor-to-ceiling windows, including along the front walkway.
Robyn greets Gordon, who asks if Simon is home—a strange question, perhaps even a disingenuous one, given that it is the middle of weekday working hours. Has Gordon truly come to see Simon, or is he more interested in his wife? Robyn offers her visitor gratitude for the bottle of wine he previously left, which she’s sure her husband has already done. It turns out that Simon hasn’t taken the time to thank Gordon, though, leading to an uncomfortable moment. Gordon waves away the slight, instead offering up a couple of other gifts: a list he’s made of local tradespeople—a plumber, a gardener, and the like—along with a can of glass cleaner. The conversation takes place with Robyn standing in the front doorway and Simon outside, but he doesn’t grasp the obvious cue that she does not want to invite him in. Her reluctance seems reasonable; his gifts and his teenage acquaintance with her husband notwithstanding, he is a stranger to her, and she is home alone. Still, Simon continues the conversation, and eventually, with a degree of reluctance offset by her courtesy and graciousness, Robyn asks him inside to tour the house.
Is this when Gordon accosts Robyn in some way, or abducts her, or even just steals from her? It feels like that kind of film, but it’s not. Their dialogue, while initially uneasy, grows more comfortable, and Robyn eventually invites him to stay for dinner. Later, after Simon arrives home, he is quiet during the evening meal, while Gordon becomes more talkative, maybe as the result of the wine the trio has been drinking. Gordon brings up high school, including his impression that Simon would ultimately make something of himself. He declares more than once how happy he is for Simon. The repeated statement feels as though it embodies something larger, as though Gordon believes he has achieved something significant by finding his way to happiness for his former schoolmate. The atmosphere of the film often engenders such an impression—that the characters are leaving things unsaid—and that lends an urgency to the story. It’s not merely a matter of the audience wanting answers to questions, but of wondering what should even be asked.
After dinner, Simon mentions to his wife how odd he found their guest. He recalls that his fellow students used to call him Gordo the Weirdo, a sentiment with which Simon still concurs. Robyn agrees that Gordon is socially awkward, but she notes that she sometimes feels that way herself. She actually likes the man, but she assuages her husband by noting that they only shared one meal with him, and that they don’t ever have to do it again.
Sometime later, when the couple attends a work event for Simon, the two speak more about about their future while also alluding to their shared past. There are intimations that Robyn’s rough patch included more than the emotional rigors of a miscarriage, and her refusal of a glass of champagne implies a battle with alcohol abuse. Once the head of a large design firm in Chicago, she now does such work from home on a freelance basis, and she openly wonders if her husband wants her to return to an office job or to remain solely a housewife. The conversation reveals tensions in the marriage, both historical and current. Simon avows that he wants whatever his wife wants, as long as she stays healthy. Though perhaps not particularly different from other fictional characters of recent vintage, Robyn Callem nevertheless becomes more three-dimensional with the layering on of her backstory. Likewise, it helps to understand the couple’s present dynamic when juxtaposed with their recent troubles.
When Simon and Robyn arrive home that night, they find yet another gift deposited at their front door: fish food. Momentarily puzzled, the pair soon discovers that Gordon has filled the small pond by their front walk with koi. The card attached to the gift contains not just a thank-you note for the dinner Simon and Robyn shared with him, but a reciprocal invitation for them to join him at his home for an evening meal.
Once again, the forward motion of the film appears obvious. If Simon and Robyn agree to another dinner, what awaits them? Will they show up at Gordon’s home to find themselves on the wrong side of the tracks? Perhaps in a dilapidated apartment building? Or maybe in a trailer park? Will they end up as guests or as prisoners? Will their food be laced with poison? Though Gordon has done nothing explicitly threatening, his continual appearances, frequent gifts, and diffident manner are all unsettling. Nevertheless, bowing to convention, the couple accepts the invitation, though Simon is eager to find a way to put an end to what seems to him a one-sided friendship.
Simon and Robyn head to the dinner, and to their surprise, arrive at a large, gated house in an upscale neighborhood. They are more than a little stunned when Gordon greets them at the door and ushers them into a beautifully appointed home. Could Simon have been wrong about his former schoolmate? At first, it seems so, but then Gordon receives a mysterious telephone call and, even more strangely, declares apologetically that he’s got to leave the house for a few minutes. He then hastens through the front door and drives away.
Utterly befuddled by Gordon’s behavior, Simon and Robyn explore the house. They find evidence not just of a wife, but also of a child, both of which fly in the face of their estimation of Gordon as an offbeat misfit and loner—unless, of course, he has somehow done away with his family. The couple is baffled by the seeming contradictions between their host’s personality and his actual life, but Simon remains convinced of his overall oddity. He mocks Gordon in absentia, his attitude far from charitable. When the host finally returns, Simon puts some pointed questions to him. Gordon admits that his wife has left him and taken their child with her. Uncomfortable with the entire situation, Simon asks Robyn to go wait in the car while he speaks with Gordon. She leaves the room, but stops at the front door and overhears the first part of the conversation, in which Simon severs their relationship with Gordon. The low-level uneasiness of all the characters begins to escalate.
Yet again, the film feels as though it will move into familiar territory, and for a short while, it seems to do so. The Callems’ dog goes missing, and though Robyn thinks she might have left the gate open, Simon believes that Gordon stole their pet. Then the koi in their pond die en masse. Simon and Robyn have no choice but to contact the police in what feels like the opening salvo of the couple fighting back against the man they identify as their postmodern urban stalker.
But the plot veers in a different direction when the Callems receive a note from Gordon explaining his behavior and apologizing for it, promising that they won’t see him again. He adds a postscript telling Simon that he really was willing to let bygones be bygones, which confuses Robyn. Simon dismisses the sentiment as a function of Gordon’s obvious mental instability, but his wife thinks that her husband may not be telling her everything. She has difficulty dealing with Simon’s apparent furtiveness, in addition to all that has happened. As a result, she swipes several prescription pills from her neighbor and begins taking them, evidently engaging in behavior familiar to her from earlier in her marriage.
The film continues to diverge from the territory its plot initially appeared to map out. Uncomfortable with how their interactions with Gordon unfolded and unable to let go of her sudden mistrust of Simon, Robyn continues taking pills. When her husband discovers her substance abuse, she promises to quit, but insists that he find and apologize to Gordon for their part in what took place. The Callems’ marriage reveals itself to be more frangible than expected, with both Robyn and Simon hiding certain aspects of their lives from each other.
It would be unfair to reveal the several surprising plot developments that populate the last half of the film, but, while unexpected, they arise reasonably and are cultivated in satisfying ways. Joel Edgerton shows a keen eye for detail and character in his direction. He has crafted a tight screenplay, which he handles with a light touch and considerable skill. His portrayal of Gordon as a man whose social clumsiness comes born of a difficult childhood feels natural and restrained. Rebecca Hall imbues Robyn Callem with a streak of fragility, but also an earnestness in her views of contemporary morality. Most impressive of all, Jason Bateman, well known for his comedic roles in television shows like Arrested Development and movies like Horrible Bosses, delivers a compelling performance as a complicated, driven man who knows what he wants out of life and how he can get it.
Overall, The Gift mines its three main characters for various aspects of the human condition: victimhood, privilege, and compassion, among others. Though it wears the trappings of several different genres throughout its length, the film does so convincingly and with purpose. The story does not meander, but strides confidently forward, wading into themes of personal responsibility, bullying, and forgiveness, which contribute some unanticipated heft to this relatively quiet work. Promulgated by the delivery of one final, well-considered gift, the film concludes with a forceful ending, though one open to interpretation in a startlingly physical way. Kudos to Joel Edgerton for a job—for multiple jobs—well done.
***¼ (out of *****)
©2017 David R. George III