Directed by and starring Joel Edgerton, The Gift’s (2015) set-up is simple but effective: Simon (Jason Bateman) and wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) bump into old school friend Gordon (Edgerton), exchange numbers and are soon sharing dinner and stilted conversation. Before long, Gordon is turning up unannounced and bearing unwanted gifts. It’s a relatable dilemma and one that can turn sour very easily. The simplicity of its premise recalls both Hitchcock and Haneke, peeling back the layers of its plot à la Rear Window (1954).
The Gift is almost unbearably tense simply by making us imagine what Gordon might do, without ever showing us directly what he does do. However, the masterstroke lies not in its efficiency as a psychological thriller, but in the way it shifts our sympathies and perspectives on the main characters. To reveal any more would spoil the film, but suffice to say that hidden within The Gift’s simple premise is a meditation on the nature of power, cruelty, and consequence. Gordon’s warning to Simon that “you might be done with the past, but the past isn’t done with you” takes on horrifying meaning by the film’s close, and one that lingers long after the credits have rolled.
Fundamentally, The Gift is about the problematic relationship between three people, and the film goes to great lengths to develop all three as complex individuals with their own agency. A lesser film would have downgraded Robyn’s role to simply that of Simon’s wife, but The Gift is as interested in Robyn’s perspective as it is in its male leads. Indeed, perspective is a crucial theme, framed as it is by the past; as vehemently as Simon tries to leave the past in the dark, both Robyn and Gordon are compelled to drag it into the light. On Gordon’s first visit he is seen through the window, a motif that recurs throughout the film: much like the past, characters are visible but untouchable, paradoxically nearby but distant. Consequently, it’s appropriate that Robyn and Simon’s modern, sterile home is apparently entirely constructed of glass, framing and constraining them by the consequences of the past.
It’s a shame, then, that the film’s final act somewhat jumps the shark in a dénouement that effectively removes Robyn’s agency as a central character. The ending is still effective, and undoubtedly lives up to its horrifying promise with its Fincher-esque twist, but in doing so it loses much of its earlier relational complexity. The Gift is a film about the consequences of treating people unfairly, but in downgrading Robyn to a plot point, acts unfairly itself. Despite its final misstep, The Gift is a fine thriller and one of the best films of the year. Dark, complex and unbearably tense, Edgerton should be applauded for crafting a film that is not just thrillingly entertaining but also probing, complex and interrogative.