“The Gift” can best be described as a creepy stalker movie but it’s not the creepy stalker movie you think it is. It’s predictable and yet not predictable, never going quite where you expect it to go. I wouldn’t classify it as horror but like the best horror movies it relies on subtlety—gradually building suspense, just waiting to burst. The movie is cold and meticulously constructed; it feels both mundane and menacing. It’s a slow burn up until the final minutes but what a stressful slow burn! Eduard Grau’s cinematography is appropriately grey and gloomy, heightening the paranoid, dread filled atmosphere. The instrumental score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans is quietly unsettling, only flaring up every now and then.
Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have moved into their new sleek suburban home. He works at an upscale security system company. She’s a consultant from home. At a department store they run into Gordo (Edgerton) who went to high school with Simon. Gordo appears timid and a little socially awkward but friendly none-the-less. He and Simon exchange a few words and later on he leaves them a gift on their front porch. Simon and Robyn don’t think much of it and move on with their lives. We learn more about Simon’s job. Robyn befriends the neighbor woman. But then Gordo shows up at their doorstep and keeps coming back and keeps leaving wrapped gifts accompanied by handwritten notes with smiley faces at the bottom (which is some how creepier). Simon and Robyn’s politeness is tested. Things get weird.
Edgerton maintains a deliberate pace and a sense of calm. For a thriller like this the more patient the director is in telling the story, the tenser the audience becomes. Edgerton’s script is more intricate than it initially seems and is concerned with character development rather than instant shocks. The movie slowly peels the layers off of each character. We learn more about Gordo and Simon’s past, marital troubles Simon and Robyn thought they left behind come creeping back, cracks start to form in their relationship as new secrets and shades of their personality are revealed.
Bateman has always been great at playing a jerk with a hint of pathetic. Here he does the same but there’s more to this particular jerk character than meets the eye. Of the three, Robyn goes through the most change; she starts out stable and put together, but the stress of the situation eventually consumes her, making her frail and paranoid. And then in the second half she transitions into the amateur detective role as she searches for truth. Edgerton is extraordinary, giving a chillingly understated performance. Gordo comes off so harmless and weak but you also feel like he could snap at any moment.
Though with Gordo it’s not so much what he does in the movie but what he doesn’t do. His absence is far more unsettling. At one point Robyn is alone in their big empty house. She thinks she hears something upstairs and when she doesn’t find anything she passes out anyway. When you don’t even need to be in the room to freak someone out, you know you’ve got a hold of them. That’s fear.
Gordo seeps into Simon and Robyn’s consciousness, which is exactly what “The Gift” does to the audience. The picture engages you on a deeper, psychological level; it stays just on the cusp of exploding into over-the-top B horror. It sticks with you. “The Gift” is also one of the few movies to use jump scares extremely well. For the most part I don’t like jump scares—they’re cheap and lazily used to get an easy jolt out of an audience. They wear off immediately. Only one jump scare happens in “The Gift” and it’s effective because we haven’t been bombarded by a dozen other jump scares already. The movie trains us to expect jump scares every minute so when the sequence finally arrives it catches us by surprise.
I don’t think “The Gift” is going to do well with general audiences. It’s too slow and never turns into the clichéd stalker thriller you expect it to. The ending is clever and exciting but like the rest of the movie it works on a more cerebral level. As for me? I was enthralled the whole way through. This is Edgerton’s directorial debut and right out of the gate he demonstrates he has the know-how to craft a smart and creepy thriller.