Sunday, August 16, 2015

Eye for an Eye: Deliciously effective "The Gift" subverts "...From Hell" thriller formula

The Gift (2015) 
108 min., rated R.

Unlike this year's indefensibly dumb but admittedly entertaining Jennifer Lopez-starrer "The Boy Next Door"—another production out of the horror-centric Blumhouse factory—"The Gift" is more than just another tally mark in the interminable list of straightforward, mothballed "Fill-in-the-Blank From Hell" thrillers. The setup may lead the viewer to assume otherwise, but viewers who think they will be able to predict every character action and plot turn will end up eating their words. The devil really is in the details, as debuting Australian writer-director Joel Edgerton concerns himself with character shadings, intelligent use of ambiguity, and provocative writing, often missing in quickie genre pictures, for this astutely crafted, deceptively fascinating slow-cooker of a psychological thriller. It's also a big late-summer surprise that cries out to be seen by a wide audience.

Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn Callem (Rebecca Hall) have just left Chicago to move back to Simon's hometown of California into a mid-century glass house in the hills. He landed a good job, while she works as a freelance interior designer, but they also just needed a change of pace from a setback in Chicago. While home shopping, Simon notices a man staring at him, and it's an old high school classmate named Gordon 'Gordo' Mosley (Joel Edgerton). Simon can't quite place him at first. When Gordo drops in at the couple's doorstep unannounced with an expensive bottle of wine, Robyn sees him as a generous, harmless man who's just socially awkward, so she invites him to stay for dinner. The gifts continue. Simon isn't so keen on the idea with Gordo repeatedly visiting his house when his wife is alone and reveals to Robyn how he was picked on in school and cruelly nicknamed "Gordo the Weirdo." It's not until Simon receives another letter from Gordo—"After all these years, I was willing to let bygones be bygones"—that Robyn begins to realize her husband might be hiding something from twenty-five years ago.

As it begins, "The Gift" moves patiently but isn't quick to deliver anything against type. Once it goes off the beaten path of a formula thriller about a one-sided friendship, particularly 1990's "Pacific Heights" and 1992's "Unlawful Entry," and tells its story from the vulnerable perspective of Robyn, the film becomes sneakily wicked and less routine than it lets on. Written and directed by triple-threat Joel Edgerton, the script is compact and without a moment to waste, and never waters down character nuances, making the three central ones three-dimensional rather than pawns. It toys with the "nothing is what it seems" tropes, shifting audience allegiances, and then reinvents itself from one scene to the next and actually skewers audience expectations. Edgerton, the director, manages to get a lot of mileage out of the Callems' sleek home when Robyn becomes convinced someone is in the house with her. Aided by the simplicity of Eduard Grau's atmospheric, serenely ominous cinematography, the glass house turns the couple into fish in a bowl, which doesn't bode well when Gordo surprises Simon and Robyn by filling their entry-way pond with koi fish, who end up belly up. 

In a film that continues to sidestep cliché, Jason Bateman even gets to subvert his own star likability. Having honed the lovably smug type, he gets to use that side of him to display a fair amount of rage as Simon. How well does Robyn actually know the man with whom she shares her life? Rebecca Hall, a wonderful actress in her own right, gets to do so much more than stand by her husband, get spooked in the shower, and go on her own investigation to get to the bottom of Simon and Gordo's past. Excellent in every scene, she is an immediately warm presence who credibly invites Gordo into her and Simon's home more than she should, although her Robyn has some skeletons of her own that are subtly hinted throughout and never come out of left field. When he's not directing his co-stars, Edgerton is unforgettably effective in the enigmatic part of Gordo that still makes him more than a goatee-twirling villain. Imbuing the character with a seemingly misunderstood social incompetence, he is so good, in fact, that the viewer feels bad for Gordo; his actions could very well be warranted, or he's just a master manipulator at calculating sweet revenge. Ultimately, Edgerton can add himself to the top of the list of "Fatal Attraction" stalkers. The supporting cast is also strong, including but not limited to Allison Tolman (TV's "Fargo"), a natural delight as the Callems' stay-at-home-mom neighbor Lucy; Katie Aselton (2012's "Black Rock"), as Simon's sister; and the always-watchable Busy Philips, as one of Simon's co-workers' wives. In a lesser, more predictable film, all of these peripheral characters would purely exist to have targets on their backs.

Without any blood or exploitative violence, "The Gift" is an absorbing, rather mature and unconventional example of how to sustain high tension and unpredictable storytelling right out of a page-turner. It relies all on unease and perception, and yet there are two exceptions of jump scares, which at least succeed in being freak-outs. Edgerton doesn't dare reveal all the cards he's playing with at once, and when secrets are unveiled and sympathies flip again and again, the final result is like a stab in the gut. How he sets the pieces, draws information out of the characters, and tightens the screws is deliciously effective. A slyly vicious fox when it could have been a Captain Obvious, and scarily plausible when it could have been preposterous, "The Gift" never cheats but decidedly fools the viewer when he or she thinks they have it all figured out. By the uncompromising resolutionif you even dare to call it thatwhat we end up not knowing is actually more unsettling and disturbing than a clear-cut answer; it's even a little insidious on Edgerton's part.

Grade: A - 

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