Things Get Really Creepy in 'The Gift'

Our protagonist's status as victim is mostly a function of images, mesmerizing shots from behind, so you might be stalking her in the shower or jogging on the streets near her home.

The Gift

Director: Joel Edgerton
Cast: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Allison Tolman, Busy Philipps, Beau Knapp, Wendell Pierce, David Denman, Katie Aselton
Rated: R
Studio: STX Entertainment
Year: 2015
US date: 2015-08-07 (General release)
UK date: 2015-08-07 (General release)

"You're a bit of a door half open type of person," Simon (Jason Bateman) says. His wife, Robyn (Rebecca Hall), doesn't object or even show much reaction, as they sit among a small gathering of friends. In another context, Simon's observation might be a compliment, but here, in The Gift, it's yet another example of his judgment and manipulation. He's not that type of person, you see. He doesn't trust people, least of all his wife.

Still, Robyn does her best to mollify Simon, repeatedly. This uncomfortable dynamic forms the emotional baseline for Joel Edgerton's thriller, as you feel increasingly unnerved by his bullying behavior and also by her acquiescence. And for long early stretches, this tension seems something of an update on Gaslight. Simon and Robyn move from Chicago to the Hollywood Hills, where roads are long and windows wide. They've brought toys in a box marked "Toys" even though they have no child, which signals instantly that the primary reason for the move is loss (a miscarriage), one for which she's inclined to feel blame while Simon is inclined to cast it.

Neither wants to talk about it. Robyn pursues her work as an interior designer (focused on the new house for now) and Simon's an ambitious something or other in an office, where he seeks a promotion pretty much as soon as he arrives. This means he's at work a lot, and when he's not at work, he's golfing with men he means to impress. His domestic sphere activities range from eating the meals Robyn prepares to shopping with her for rugs and pillows at a local mall. During one of these outings they run into an old elementary school classmate of Simon, the visibly and rather incessantly awkward Gordo (Joel Edgerton). They exchange a few words and a breezy agreement they must get together, and a day later, Gordo is at the new house, bearing a gift.

That gift -- wine -- looks innocuous but of course it isn't. The three-way relationship evolves in ways that reveal deceptions on all parts, with Gordo's apparent menace exposing cracks in Simon and Robyn's marriage. "A creepy little fucker," as Simon puts it, Gordo tends to lurk, to pop up in windows and doorways, and to pose questions the couple is increasingly unable to answer. These have to do with their own past, as well as Simon's history with Gordo, which emerges with the sort of deliberate and deliberate and infuriating delay typical of such movie mysteries, as Robyn fulfills the roles of both victim and investigator.

Her status as victim is mostly a function of mesmerizing shots from behind her, slowly following or slowly pushing in. She's in the shower, back to the camera amid accumulating steam. Or she's jogging, unhurried, on the streets near her home, the camera starting low, on her legs and feet, then making its way up her body and around to her face, pensive. Or again, she's at home alone, the camera over her shoulder as she peers into hallways that stretch into a blurred distance. Perhaps most disconcertingly, she's not alone, but seated across from Simon, who's loudly performing his confidence and cruelty, mimicking what characterizes as Gordo's lust for Robyn or cutting her off when she suggests their interloper only wants to be friends.

This image pattern sets Robyn at risk from something just off-screen, not quite seen, and it makes you worry for her as she initiates an investigation, looking through Simon's locked desk drawers or stepping into one of those blurred hallways. Here amid the clichés (camera over her shoulder, tick-ticking in the background), The Gift offers a couple of moments suggesting insight, yours or hers, or once, her dog's. She stares into his face, large and panting in close-up, and she wonders out loud, "Where have you been?" You, like Robyn, might think for a moment the dog, named Jangles, knows what she means, might know what she needs to know.

Jangles' face doesn't mark a turning point in the movie but it does provide you a moment to think about your own part in all this. As much as Robyn wants Jangles' help, as much as you might imagine he wants to help, or has his own questions about his increasingly erratic humans, you also realize here that your seeming immersion in Robyn's desire and dread isn't so complete. As it slides toward its resolution, The Gift lets loose of Robyn's experience and follows Simon a bit more aggressively, a shift that affects your anticipation and your sympathies, as you do indeed know what she doesn't -- but should! -- and so start to judge everyone in ways they can't quite judge each other.

"Where have you been?" Robyn has asked Jangles, and so too, you might ask yourself. It's a familiar trick in scary movies, to derail your assumptions, to make you guess again, to rethink what you've seen. But the slip into Simon's unhinging is bothersome in its own ways. Here the movie persists in insinuating the threat to Robyn, the threat to her body and psyche, even as it also acknowledges the threat her body poses, to, say, a covetous man. It's a disturbing change in focus, one that drops you deep inside a whole other set of clichés.

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