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18 August 2015

"The Bad Things, They Can Be a Gift"

I have tried to avoid spoilers in this review, but if you're curious about the ending of The Gift, check out The AV Club's take, which, as an added bonus, has plenty of hilarious Arrested Development references in the comment threads.

I wouldn't say that the PeckhamPlex on a Saturday nigh was the ideal setting to watch Joel Edgerton's smart, tense thriller, The Gift. Almost all of the Wittertainment Code of Conduct rules had been breached within the first couple of minutes and apart from a particularly tense couple of scenes in the middle, most of the audience talked pretty much the whole way through. Still, you can't really complain when your ticket costs a third of the price of some West End cinemas, can you?

As The Gift opens, a young married couple, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), move into a gorgeous new house in an affluent suburban neighbourhood of Los Angeles. Ostensibly, they have relocated from Chicago because Simon, who works in computer security, has just been offered a great new job. We soon learn, however, that there may be other reasons why the couple is seeking a fresh start and why Robyn has left her high-powered consultancy job to freelance.

Their new home is not far from where Simon grew up and, while shopping for furniture, they run into someone from Simon's past — a rather unsettling guy named Gordon (Edgerton), who says he went to high school with Simon but whom Simon seems to struggle to place. They have an awkward conversation, Simon takes Gordon's number and they part ways. Later, Simon explains to his wife that he and Gordon weren't friends; Gordon was an outsider at the school, and given the creative nickname of 'Gordo the Weirdo' by his bullies.

Before long, though, gifts start showing up outside Simon and Robyn's house, with signature red bows on top and hand-written, smiley-punctuated notes from Gordon. Sometimes, Gordo comes to present them himself, usually during the day when he knows Simon will be at work and Robyn at home alone. This results in an awkward and way too long dinner-for-three at their house, one night, and a weird evening that soon becomes scary for Simon and Robyn when Gordon insists on returning the favour.

So far, so standard thriller. However, the constant subtle shifts and changes of perspective elevate Edgerton's film into something more interesting. We learn more about Simon and Robyn's relationship and a little of what has happened back in Chicago and before. We also see Simon's ambition in the workplace as he angles for a big promotion. It soon becomes clear that our initial assumptions about the role of each character in this film may have been completely mistaken.

Edgerton's film is suspenseful, tightly edited and great fun. There are a few some great scares — which managed to quieten even the PeckhamPlex audience for a few minutes — but better still is the constant air of unease. It's a hugely uncomfortable film but in a good way, and it's just a shame that the ending goes some way to ruin that uneasy moral ambiguity that has been accruing nicely throughout the film.

Edgerton and Hall both put in good performances in their respective roles, but it's Bateman who surprises and delights. I thought Bateman was great on Arrested Development (and Juno) but several seasons of the show have conditioned me to always think of his characters as the archetypal nice guys. It's to his credit, therefore, that he is able to pull off this darker role where we only gradually begin to realise that he may not be the perfect guy we initially thought.

The Gift isn't perfect but it's an impressive and entertaining directorial debut from Edgerton with good acting and a thoughtful, thought-provoking script. If you're looking for a film to keep you on the edge of your cinema seat, this is it.

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