Like Pavlov’s pups, moviegoers are conditioned to expect certain things, and when they happen, react accordingly. Suspense thrillers are a good example. At some point, the protagonist will hear a muffled thump and investigate. He or she (usually she) will slowly peer into a room, the camera will swing around to reveal there’s someone behind them, and a heart-stopping noise will make you jump. (I’m glad real life surprises don’t make sounds like movies ones do.)
This happens in “The Gift,” a new suspense thriller written, produced, and directed by Joel Edgerton, who also plays a major role in the film. (More on that later.) But (spoiler alert!) there’s no one there. Rather, the protagonist (a she) quietly pads back to her bedroom, where there are no surprises, either.
I believe Edgerton uses the scene to establish something important about his film: viewers should discard their expectations because “The Gift” is not a paint-by-numbers thriller.
“The Gift” doesn’t just subvert viewer expectations in simple ways, like in the scene I described above; it also aims to surprise audiences in deeper, more meaningful ways. Our sympathy for certain characters are nurtured (again, based on our expectations going into the movie) and then undermined. Crucial scenes end without any payoff, let alone the resolution most people will anticipate, and then later, something more ominous is revealed to have happened. And I truly did not see the ending coming.
In fact, the only suspense thriller cliché I could find in “The Gift” is the stubborn refusal of the protagonist (the she) to turn on the lights before investigating the muffled thump. Suspense thriller heroines have a maddening habit of looking for intruders in the dark, and I don’t think it’s because they’re meant to be models for how to cut back on electricity.
The story, at the beginning: A young married couple, Simon and Robin, appear to be very much in love. They’ve just moved from Chicago to California, where Simon grew up, in the wake of a miscarriage, which we are led to believe was due to the stress of living and working in a big city. While out shopping for supplies, they run into Gordo, who Simon knew in high school.
To put it mildly, Gordo is socially awkward. (Simon tells his wife they used to call him Gordo the Weirdo.) After their initial encounter, he begins showing up at the couple’s house unannounced, dropping off gifts at their doorstep, and generally forcing his presence on them. This puts off Simon, but Robin feels sorry for Gordo, to the point of inviting him into their home while her husband is at work (which set off multiple suspense thriller alarms in my head).
Things come to a boiling point after a very strange (and in my estimation, very funny) visit to Gordo’s house for a dinner party, and before leaving, Simon tells his unwanted friend to stop coming around. I can’t tell you anything that happens after that because to do so would ruin the pleasure of watching this cleverly written story unfold.
What I can tell you is that as good as Edgerton’s writing and directing are, the success of his film hinges on how well his cast sells the story. And do they ever. I’ve always liked Jason Bateman, who plays Simon, even though I’ve never bought into his comedic persona. He relies heavily on improvisation, despite not being good at it, or funny. But here, wow. Edgerton cast Bateman against our expectations of him, to the benefit of his film. Essentially, Bateman knocks the role of Simon – a complex and layered part – out of the ballpark. Who knew there was a fiercely good dramatic actor under all of that loosey, goosey improv?
I also loved Rebecca Hall as Robin. She expresses more with her eyes than most actors can communicate with their entire selves. Her ability to suggest emotion and context through body language is essential because Edgerton doesn’t explain important plot points with expository dialogue, he shows them. I love how he reveals Robin’s key frailty, and how that weakness changed my thinking about what happened in Chicago, and about what would happen moving forward. (No, I won’t tell you more. Go see the movie!)
As for Edgerton, who plays Gordo, if he was distracted by doing quadruple duty as actor, writer, director, and producer, I couldn’t tell. He creates in Simon what is arguably the most memorable thriller villain since Glenn Close’s Alex in “Fatal Attraction.”
Despite being original and inventive, “The Gift” is not a boring, high brow yawn-fest. Rather, it’s tremendously entertaining and suspenseful, partly because for the first time in a long time, I had no idea what was going to happen. It’s been a week since I’ve seen it, and all I can think about is getting back to the theater to see it again.
I hope you see it, too. It’s worthy of support, and I would love for someone to give Edgerton money to make another movie. The guy has skills!
Three and a half stars out of four. Rated R for language.
David Laprad is the assistant editor of the Hamilton County Herald and an award-winning columnist and photographer. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.