Like your douchebag cousin’s car, there are spoilers here. Turn back now if you don’t want The Gift unwrapped.
“Sometimes good comes from the bad,” Gordo (Joel Edgerton) remarks at a dinner party in the first act of The Gift. And if the lives of the film’s protagonists are any indication, sometimes the bad also comes with the good. Edgerton, who also writes and directs, draws out dread from many scenes where gifts become a terrible omen of something to come, but his most important success is his use of character development and the subtle ways he explores the hidden intricacies of personality; the good can also be from people, a facade that shrouds the bad person with an air of goodness.
That person is, surprisingly, Jason Bateman, playing the object of Gordo’s obsession Simon. At first Bateman seems like an odd casting choice for such a dark film; he’s mostly known for his goofier comedic persona, probably most impressively in his role as Michael Bluth in Arrested Development. But Edgerton knows the potential pitfalls of using such a comic personality in a serious role, and it actually becomes a vital choice in The Gift. Bateman is excellent, guided by Edgerton’s direction: in the first act, Simon is Bateman’s normal bubbly self, buying a new house and legitimately excited about his new job at a blossoming corporation. And his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) seems to be maladjusted, with references to an incident that happened before their move.
But as The Gift continues, as Gordo – a figure from Simon’s childhood – emerges from the shadows and inappropriately drops in on the couple, Simon’s veneer begins to cloud. It’s subtle at first; Simon’s a bit creeped out (understandably) by Gordo’s reoccurring gifts and his trespassing, and so he begins to slip into a bit of bullying that reminds him of Gordo’s high school days, and then he attempts to break off their one-sided friendship by confronting Gordo before things escalate. As the gifts continue, though, Simon slips up; the “Simon Says” persona that has always been a staple of Simon’s life, the do anything-get anything approach that has proven so successful, falters because Gordo’s terrorizing reveals an ingrained awfulness within him.
It’s thanks to Edgerton as Gordo, too, that the juxtaposition can occur. The Gift revels in awkwardness. Dinner scenes where the film introduces Gordo are painful and cringe-worthy, the result of social anxieties and Gordo’s strange fixation on knowing Simon in his past. Edgerton wants the viewer to feel the disconnect between the characters, and The Gift is continuously uncomfortable viewing.
That’s why the scares are so effective when they do occur. The film is a thriller, so its primary intent isn’t to scare the viewer outright; but the stalking sequences are eerie simply because Gordo is such an odd duck. But more than that, it’s because Edgerton refrains from giving the audience a grasp on who exactly is to blame for the events taking place. Is it Gordo, who has clearly been so distraught over Simon’s bullying in the past that he feels he needs to torment Simon’s family? Or is it Simon himself, still the type of person who will frame another job applicant and talk over someone until they’re forced to listen?
Edgerton doesn’t offer those answers. Instead, he presents a chilling endgame, one that will affect Simon for the rest of his life. It’s the type of vengeance that resonates expressly because attempts to discuss and come to terms with it are hopeless. It’s an event that changes a person’s life – unlike the threat of stalking, the knowledge of the event is constant, a nagging psychological knife in the brain. Edgerton leaves his characters in an unknown state, ending The Gift at the epitome of its bleakness. It’s a horrifying ending, but cold in a way that also feels disconcertingly right.
The Gift fits well alongside films like Michael Haneke’s Funny Games. It has that same sense of suspense that comes from the mysteries of the human personality. Edgerton’s subtle touch, both in his portrayal of Gordo and his directing of Bateman and Hall, allow the film to reveal the layers of the character’s psyches, and what The Gift unwraps is truly haunting. Worse, though, is that its unhappy ending leaves no indication of morality, forcing the viewer into the uncomfortable position of making that decision.