Joel Edgerton’s The Gift starts out like so many other thrillers before it — with an attractive, well-to-do couple purchasing a big new house — and then beats its own, uniquely tense and twisted path from there. It never flinches from that path, either. Where other films would have opted for cheap thrills, The Gift remains focused on the phantoms within. For most of its running time, its villains aren’t people, but doubt, fear, guilt, and rage. It’s that rarest of psychological thrillers: one that actually lives up to the words psychological thriller.
The couple in question, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), have moved to the Los Angeles area after some time in Chicago, because he’s just gotten a fancy new job. They seem loving, but haunted. She, we learn, is somewhat emotionally fragile, possibly due to a miscarriage she had back in Chicago. He, meanwhile, is a loving, affable cutthroat — a guy whose laid-back demeanor hides deep reserves of paranoia and ambition, both at home and at work.
The plot swings into motion when the couple runs into Gordon (Edgerton himself), an old high-school acquaintance of Simon’s. “Gordo,” whom Simon informs us was once known as “Gordo the Weirdo,” acts aggressively nice toward them, and particularly Robyn — bringing by gifts of wine and lists of local handymen, and even filling their empty koi pond with real fish. Simon and Robyn are both freaked out by such “asymmetric friendship” (as one chatty guest at one of their bourgeois dinner parties describes it). But already seams are starting to show in husband and wife’s differing approaches: Simon, who was never close to Gordo in the first place, is deeply troubled by the man’s actions; Robyn, meanwhile, is certainly uncomfortable, but she sees something of herself in Gordo’s neediness.
There’s always been a certain complacency to Jason Bateman’s generally amiable presence — even at his most likable he seems pleasantly cocooned in his own self-regard. The Gift plays wonderfully with that, showing us how it takes the minutest of shifts for the actor to go from genial everyman to smug, patronizing jerk. Hall, meanwhile, has got this exposed-nerve thing down cold; she’s never seemed more vulnerable, and that’s saying a lot. Watching their relationship mutate, as these two actors toy with their respective personae, is one of The Gift’s many pleasures.
But the real star of this show is Edgerton. First, there’s his performance: In others’ films, he often vanishes off the screen, and not always in a good way. Here, he puts that blankness to good use — Gordo is, for much of the film, thoroughly unreadable, his character determined as much by the changing dynamics of Simon and Robyn’s marriage as by anything the actor himself does.
Second, and most important: This is an exceedingly well-written and directed film. As a screenwriter, Edgerton clearly has an eye and ear for small, revealing details, even manners of speech that hint at characters’ true intentions. And he rarely goes for the easy way out. It’s rare for one of these types of movies — let’s call it the Creepy Friend or Neighbor genre, with examples ranging from Pacific Heights to Fatal Attraction to, well, The Cable Guy — to keep this level of suspense and uncertainty going for this long. Usually, we figure out everybody’s true nature by a certain point, and the films just degenerate into chase scenes or violent set pieces. The Gift, instead, maintains its aura of nerve-racking tension throughout, keeping us guessing not just as to what will happen next, but as to who, at heart, all these people really are. The film certainly has its share of real frights — including a couple of terrific jump scares — but its real terrors are in the mind.