This directorial debut feature from Joel Edgerton, who also writes and stars in the film, proves to be a very satisfying and original addition to the suspense genre. Edgerton plays Gordo, an old acquaintance and school mate of Simon (Jason Bateman). Simon has just moved back near his hometown in California with his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) to begin a new job. They buy a nice house in the suburbs and plan on raising a family. After they run into Gordo at a furniture store he begins to send gifts to their new house—a bottle of wine, glass cleaner, and some fish for their pond—and drop by unannounced while Simon is at work and Robyn is home by herself. Simon thinks Gordo’s intentions are something other than just “being friendly” and shares with his wife his desire to tell Gordo to stop contacting them and for him to leave them alone. Robyn believes he is just being nice and becomes uneasy about the whole situation so she tries to make sense of Gordo’s strange behavior and frequent letters by finding out the true nature of her husband’s past relationship with Gordo and what his present intentions are.
More psychological drama than psychological thriller, The Gift does a great job of slowly building the suspense while keeping the audience guessing how exactly it will pay off. It starts small, an idea, a slight ember burning at the surface that feels equally on the verge of becoming extinguished and engulfing the whole forrest at any moment. The first two acts take their time and linger in this ambiguity by always keeping the intentions of its three main characters hidden from the audience and from each other. The third act subverts all genre cliches and is able to create a surprising explosion from its initial ember. Unfortunately, the ending doesn’t fall in line with everything that came before it. It feels ridiculous and forced and incongruent with all of the actions of its characters up until that point. If it had done a better job laying the groundwork by foreshadowing and making Simon and Gordo more well developed, then perhaps the surprise at the end would have been more believable and more satisfying. As it is, we never know enough about those two characters to really buy into their actions at the end of the film.
The highlight of the film is its ability to sustain an absolutely perfect tone throughout its run time, always finding itself at the intersections of unease, paranoia, terror, and harmlessness. This tone is achieved through good performances, timely music, and well paced plotting. There are also a couple of moments of pure terror that will have you jumping out of your seat. Not to give anything away, but scares that come after the music has built to a crescendo and a character has walked down a long hallway to look out a window or turn a corner are usually done for cheap shock value and don’t really add anything to the film, but The Gift has a few of these moments that work very well and highlight the psychological turmoil of its characters.
Thematically, The Gift aims to highlight the power of guilt coming back from the past and shows that although burying it and forgetting about it can be easy, especially for wealthy and successful people, it can be both psychologically and physically detrimental if it is not confronted. It is very similar to Caché, the great 2005 film from Michael Haneke, in its thematic choices. Also, much like that film, The Gift seems more concerned with posing questions to its audience rather than answering them.
There are many things to love about this very promising debut from actor-turned-director Joel Edgerton and the first three-fourths of the film are excellent. The ending, while not completely disappointing and one that many will consider to be an exhilarating conclusion to a very tense film, betrays the spirit of the greatness that had been building up to it. It feels slightly too concerned with placating the audience with a jaw-dropping twist and goes too far in what it ultimately suggests. Its subtlety, ambiguity, and misdirection is what makes the majority of it very compelling, but, unfortunately, it is unable to sustain it until the end.