“You are done with the past, but the past is not done with you,” Gordon warns after a turbulent reunion with his old classmate Simon in “The Gift,” a disturbing drama that twists its outsider-from-hell story into something more unique and unexpected than its marketing campaign might imply.
Joel Edgerton, the Aussie actor best known for roles in “Animal Kingdom,” “Warrior” and the 2013 version of “The Great Gatsby,” writes and makes an auspicious directorial debut here. He also plays the pivotal Gordon “Gordo” Moseley, a mysterious, awkward fellow who works his way into the seemingly shiny lives of sales exec Simon (Jason Bateman) and Simon’s interior designer wife, Robyn (Rebecca Hall). But to what end?
Simon, a Southern California native, and Robyn have just relocated to Los Angeles from Chicago. After running into Gordo one day in a home decor store, the couple are unsettled by Gordo’s repeated overtures of friendship — and a string of intrusive gift deliveries. That Gordo tends to show up unannounced at their Midcentury Modern home in the Hollywood Hills gives Simon and Robyn further pause. Though Simon is of the “let’s cut bait” school, Robyn is more sympathetic to the curious Gordo.
A deceptive dinner party, however, in which host Gordo displays dubious behavior in an equally dubious setting, would seem to end any possible friendship with Simon and Robyn. But that only marks the beginning of a new phase of emotional unraveling in which the sins of the past come to bear on the present.
It’s a given that “bygones” will rear their ugly head here and will not go unpunished. But how, why and by whom — that is what lends Edgerton’s script its power and fascination.
To divulge much more might spoil a superior film in an overworked genre once heavily populated by the likes of “Fatal Attraction,” “Pacific Heights,” “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle” and other domestic thrillers. Suffice to say that there’s an eerie profundity to the picture’s second half that gives “The Gift” surprising weight and thematic resonance.
Although the film builds an effective sense of dread and contains its share of unnerving visuals and well-timed scares, it proves far more psychological thrill ride than shockfest. Take heart: No bunnies were boiled in the making of this movie.
Bateman, not quite cast against type but certainly in a more dire mode than usual, plays the cavalierly dismissive, don’t-look-back Simon with calculated intrigue; it’s a masterful turn. Hall brings deft pathos and shading to the sensitive Robyn. Meanwhile, Edgerton juggles his character’s weirdness, sadness and dodginess with aplomb.
The film’s stirring ending is just one more way Edgerton’s approach upends expectation, makes us think and should inspire conversation. Now that’s a gift.
MPAA rating: R for language
Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes
Playing: In general release