On the surface, The Gift appears to be a throwback to the “adult” thrillers that were popular a few decades ago, where some recognizable American family is tormented by an enemy with a friendly-seeming smile. That assumption makes the casting of Jason Bateman, who normally plays the straight man in comedic projects, seem particularly strange. As the film unravels, though, it’s easy to see a tweaked version of The Gift playing as a comedy. It also lets Bateman’s trademark impatience turn in this context into something far darker.
For the record, the enemy in this feature isn’t Bateman’s character, Simon, but rather Gordon (Joel Edgerton), a military veteran whose unnerving presence finds its way into the lives of Simon and his wife, Robyn (Rebecca Hall). Gordon initially approaches Simon and Robyn in a store, and it’s obvious Simon doesn’t initially recognize Gordon. The awkward encounter ends with a polite promise to catch up soon, which Gordon takes upon himself to confirm by showing up unannounced at their home. Robyn deems Gordon “a little socially awkward,” while Simon goes for an older nickname: “Gordo the Weirdo.”
The film plays along rather predictably at this point, with Gordon’s behavior growing more and more stalker-like. This is especially true when Simon decides to cut things off with Gordon. But then the film starts messing with the audience’s sympathies. It’s clear that Simon and Gordon have some sort of history, and Robyn takes it upon herself to find out what happened between them. This is where the film gains some intrigue: by playing with how the genre typically plays out. The sarcasm that typically lines Bateman’s performances shifts into outright cruelty, where Simon’s general confidence is shown to be all the character has. Hall, meanwhile, imbues Robyn with a sense of a dreadful awakening in a role that is largely reactive. The shifts push The Gift out of thriller territory and more into psychodrama, with the lines separating the heroes and villains continuously blurring. It’s a smart shift.
And…then the ending botches it. There are a few directions in which the film could go at the end, and Edgerton (who also serves as writer and director) goes for a sour note, forfeiting the agency of the film’s heroine in favor of an overly elaborate revenge plot. It’s an ending more appropriate for a trashy thriller than the film that, prior to this point, Edgerton seems interested in making. While it doesn’t necessarily ruin everything that came before, it does disappoint.