Behind The Gift’s unassuming title is a tightly plotted thriller cannily hiding its darkest secrets until it’s too late to look away. It starts with cold trepidation and ends with upsetting nasty emotional wreckage. It lacks the complexity of superior thrillers, but maintains an admirable shiftiness throughout. Australian actor Joel Edgerton wrote and directed this, his first feature, and shows off fine dexterity in his filmmaking, sharp control over a devious slow build for an entirely non-supernatural horror film built on creepy uncertainties and scary implications inherent in human interactions. It traps three characters in a scenario of social awkwardness that grows icy and uncomfortable until there’s no way out that’ll spare all involved.
Edgerton, perhaps tired of the bland leading-ish man Hollywood has tried to force him to play (in forgotten roles in Warrior, The Odd Life of Timothy Green, or Exodus Gods and Kings, or even in good movies like The Great Gatsby or Zero Dark Thirty), here writes himself a choice supporting role as a real weirdo who makes life difficult for a married couple. They’ve just moved into a new town, the husband (Jason Bateman) taking a new job and the wife (Rebecca Hall) running her design business from their new home. It’s a shiny midcentury place with large glass windows forming an exterior wall, the better to be stalked in. When they run into one of the husband’s old high school classmates (Edgerton), he’s an overly ingratiating nice guy, welcoming them to the neighborhood and buying them housewarming gifts. There’s something off about him, the way he shows up unannounced and invites himself into their lives. He’s always around.
Soon details of the man’s story aren’t adding up and, freaked out, the couple breaks off contact. But then their dog goes missing, fish die, and mysterious messages appear. And of course those big glass windows aren’t helping calm fears of someone lurking on the margins of their lives, peeking in with who knows what thoughts running in his odd head. Edgerton makes smart decisions about when to cut into the perspective of which character, allowing us to watch Hall tremble into paranoia as their friendly stalker suddenly seems not so friendly, then Bateman as he blusteringly waves off his wife’s concerns. They’re frayed in ways revealing of their basest instincts, good and bad. We’re also eventually allowed a glimpse of the weirdo’s point of view, contextualizing his actions and directing attention to the sins so-called normal people get away with by using their averageness as cover.
Because the film approaches lurid subject matter with an eye toward the unsettling quotidian details of a person you’d rather not be around, Edgerton finds frightening ideas in simple things that can cause a person to freak out. There’s nothing quite so frightening as waking in the middle of the night to see a light on at the other end of the house, one you’d swear you’d switched off. Worse still, perhaps, is realizing someone’s been in your house, even though nothing appears to have been taken or destroyed. Edgerton’s camera finds typical suspense details like a glow at the end of a dark hall, a faucet running which wasn’t before, or a sudden appearance of an animal inside the frame, with a patient simmer. He lets the scares appear with a sense of effective rhythm, having slow cuts and precise focus pulls reveal dread.
Can you ever truly know anyone? That’s the age-old question The Gift confronts by shifting perspective subtly, revealing information to us only as certain characters discover it. As the plot heads away from what seemed in the opening scenes a predictable path, an evolving understanding of where the characters are coming from makes any chance for easy morality feel slippery. Who deserves comeuppance in this scenario? Who has done the most wrong? And do the ultimate victims deserve their fate? The questions remain tantalizingly unresolved. Ending on a note of slimy ambiguity, the movie questions the ultimate aims of any social interaction, especially in a world where so many may feel a little deception is reasonable to get what they want. It gets there through a disturbing twist, hinging on psychological damage (plus, most upsetting, the implication of even more depravity that may or may not have occurred, a nasty addition). Edgerton commits to seeing his chilling premise taken much further than you’d think it’d go.