The Gift (2015)
Rated R for language
One of the many trends I've noticed in Hollywood's release schedule is that, as summer enters its later months, the quality of the big blockbusters tends to drop precipitously. This is not a particularly novel observation -- the term "dump months", describing both the late summer months of August and September and the winter months of January and February, is well-known in Hollywood and among movie buffs. What doesn't get as much attention, on the other hand, is that in recent years, late summer has become prime time to release smaller dramas aimed at a more adult crowd, those burned out on overheated blockbusters like, say, Terminator Genisys, Pixels, and one of this weekend's other new releases, the Fantastic Four reboot. (Needless to say, I studiously avoided all three of those films. I can smell pure dogshit from a mile away.) A couple of years ago, the main "blockbuster alternative" was the superb crime drama Prisoners, and today, it's The Gift, the directorial debut of Joel Edgerton, who stars alongside Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall. After a decidedly mixed summer in terms of quality films, The Gift stands as one of the best. Edgerton shows far more finesse and confidence in his work behind the camera than one would expect for someone directing his first feature film, leading himself and his fellow cast members in a smart, intense, and dramatic thriller.
Bateman and Hall play Simon and Robyn Callum, a happily married couple moving from Chicago to Simon's old hometown of Los Angeles due to Simon's job. There, they meet Edgerton's character Gordon "Gordo" Mosley, a man who Simon went to school with and who has taken an unusual interest in the two, frequently stopping over at their house and giving them gifts. Simon and Gordo seem to have history with one another, which makes Robyn suspicious of Gordo's true intentions. However, the more she looks into Gordo and his past. the more she starts to suspect that her own husband isn't the pleasant man he seems to be. Before long, things quickly come to a head as Simon's mean streak is slowly revealed.
Don't let the Blumhouse branding, the advertising, or my own plot description fool you: this is not a horror movie. There's no blood, and not a lot of effort put into building tension outside of a few scenes (likely shot just to throw into the trailer). This is firmly a character-driven drama, a film about the past coming back to haunt people, how a harrowing experience in childhood can haunt a man for the rest of his life, and how someone who was a bully as a teenager can take that attitude with him into adulthood. Without spoiling anything, while the film clearly presents Gordo as a creep, it's ultimately Simon who comes across as the true villain. As his life disintegrated towards the end, I did feel a pang of pity, but most of all, I felt relieved that this guy was getting the kick in the ass he deserved for all the horrible things he did both before and during the film. Jason Bateman is amazing, proving that he's far more than just the funnyman from Arrested Development and films like Horrible Bosses. He started out charming, even quite funny at times, but as the film went on, I was more than once uttering "you fucking asshole" under my breath at the shit he did. Rebecca Hall is no slouch as Simon's wife Robyn, either. While her role is less showy than Bateman's, she still gets a lot to do, with Robyn serving as the main force unraveling the mystery of Gordo and Simon's past and the only character who comes out of this film looking decent, even if she herself has her problems of her own. Finally, Joel Edgerton succeeded in making Gordo simultaneously weird and a touch sympathetic. You wouldn't want to hang out with him, but you can't help but feel sorry for the guy given what he's been through.
Edgerton is also great behind the camera as well. He's crafted a remarkably solid and intelligent thriller out of the interactions of the three main characters, one that left me wondering all the way to the final frame just how much, or how little, I should trust either Simon or Gordo. He does a great job avoiding the many pitfalls and cliches of films like this, putting together a film that constantly left me second-guessing myself. (Let's just say, even though there are no teenage characters in this film, I would show it in high schools across the country if I could, in order to show students the lasting damage that bullying can do well into adulthood.) In his first outing in the director's chair, he does little that's particularly showy, but he doesn't embarrass himself either, keeping the film small and tight while getting a great deal of mileage out of the small handful of locales he's shooting in. Between his work here as a writer, a director, and an actor, I definitely hope to see more of Edgerton in the future, on both sides of the camera.
Score: 5 out of 5
I can't say much more without getting into spoilers, so I'll just say this: The Gift is an excellent thriller that you should definitely check out, a welcome relief from the terrible blockbuster action films of August.