It’s good when a genre film does its job well without insulting your intelligence—no matter if the genre is crime, suspense, science fiction, romantic comedy, or whatever. But it’s even better when a genre film not only does that, but transcends itself, becomes more than entertainment, and actually says something meaningful about the human condition. I just saw such a film at the multiplex—it’s called The Gift, and it truly is that, for movie lovers who would like some substance along with their cinematic excitement.
Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall play Simon and Robyn—a young, upwardly mobile married couple in the process of moving from Chicago back to the southern California area where Simon grew up. The occasion is a new, high-paying job for Simon, in which he has high hopes for promotion to executive status.
While they’re at a store buying furnishings for their new home, a man introduces himself to Simon as an old acquaintance from high school—his name is Gordon Moseley, and he’s played by Joel Edgerton, who also happens to be the writer and director of this movie, The Gift. Simon, who at first doesn’t recognize Gordon, gives him his phone number and says it was nice to see him after all these years. He explains later to his wife that he barely knew him in high school, where his nickname was Gordo.
Sometime after that, they notice that a gift has arrived on their doorstep: a bottle of wine from Gordo, with a note welcoming them to their new home. Robyn persuades Simon to call Gordo and invite him over for dinner. After a somewhat awkward evening, and after Gordo is gone, Simon expresses his opinion that Gordo is kind of pathetic, that he clearly hasn’t changed much from high school, and he hopes that this is the extent of their further contact. But a few days later, Gordo shows up while Simon is at work, and ends up in a conversation with Robyn. The visits and the gifts continue, and it starts to seem as if Gordo might be developing an unhealthy obsession with Simon’s wife.
Now, we all know where this story is headed, right? Casual acquaintance, slightly creepy, evolves into scary stalker. And The Gift is a thriller, a suspense film, and the plot does kind of go that way. There are even a few “scare” moments. But more interesting surprises are in store, and they consist of much more than plot twists. The film turns out to be a character-driven story, and I can’t say anything more without ruining it. Don’t read too much about the movie, either. Just go see it and be surprised yourself.
High praise goes to Edgerton, an Australian actor who hits it out of the park in his first feature as a director. Jason Bateman, whom we usually think of as a comic actor, demonstrates that he has impressive dramatic range. But the most important presence here is Rebecca Hall as Robyn. Her point of view becomes crucial to the film, and the emotional changes she goes through are convincing in ways that many actresses might not have been able to pull off. I found The Gift to be satisfying on just about every level, an end-of-summer movie that smartly breaks the mold.