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Yikes, just look at him.

Fun facts: Joel Edgerton is a very, very good actor. He doesn’t always pick the best roles (Exodus, The Great Gatsby), though he’s usually great anyway. When he does pick well, he is a titan (Warrior, Animal Kingdom)… and it turns out that he has long been writing and directing in Australia on top of his acting. The Gift is his first wide release in North America, and it proves that he’s got major chops with both pen and sword whatever directors use.

The Gift is a tight and razor-sharp thriller that is in a constant dialogue with audience expectations and even our morality and sense of justice. It’s a movie that is full of surprised on every level, as fully aware of its story devices as it is in who is cast in what role and what their general persona is outside of the movie. Edgerton is never comfortable letting anything just be what it seems, and makes you complicit by sneakily having you root for different characters at different times, when it’s likely that none of them has clean hands in any of this. Many people are refraining from writing detailed reviews of The Gift at this point, because so much of its effectiveness relies on knowing little about it going in. I agree that people should go into this movie “unspoiled” but I’m also hoping that people who’ve seen it will read this review and discuss the movie with me in the comments.

I’ll respect that in the usual manner:

THE GIFT OF A SPOILER WARNING

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Under the carapace of a seemingly happy marriage… darkness lurks!

Simon (Jason Bateman) is a sales rep for a big software security company. He has moved himself and his wife, Robyn (Rebecca Hall), from Chicago to California. They are planning to not only start a new chapter of their seemingly ideal lives, but perhaps start a family as well. Simon starts off in full Bateman mode, being that smug and superior kind of funny that only a few people can pull off without being horrible. Robyn is demur by comparison, but they seem to have a good relationship until they… don’t.

The catalyst for everybody’s bad time is Gordo (Joel Edgerton, playing against type from minute one), a figure from Simon’s past who knows more about him than his wife does. Or at least, that’s what she starts to suspect as too many of the things Gordo and Simon say tickle the suspicious part of her mind. Robyn is the point of view character for most of the movie, and the audience surrogate by both natural order and by Edgerton’s authorial design. This is because she’s coming at the central questions of the movie from much the same position as we are: in the dark but quietly inquisitive.

At first, Simon seems willing to indulge Robyn’s kindness and Gordo’s odd generosity in a kind of proto-friendship. Gordo seems very excited to develop it into something more, but his social awkwardness and penchant for lies and half-truths end up justifying Simon’s overall reluctance to have anything to do with him. It’s only when Simon tries to push Gordo back out of their lives that things escalate, and Gordo appears to be the classic “stalker” archetype of various and sundry home-thriller movies. You think you see the turns, let alone the ending, coming a long way off from here. Gordo will escalate the tension by pushing the boundaries into illegal and threatening behavior, and Simon’s masculine need to be strong and protective will put himself and his innocent wife in harm’s way in spite of the essential and undeniable wrongness of Gordo’s actions.

Well… that’s what you think is going down, anyway.

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The tension slowly but surely ramps up with every scene these characters share.

What’s really happening runs a bit deeper into the murky territory of how we do things or are things and never fully stop doing or being those things, even as we age way past the point where we still worry about it. Simon was a huge bully in school, and some of those tendencies come out of Bateman’s performance and Robyn’s sort of worn down humoring of his behavior and comments starts to take on new meaning. This is a brilliant way to use Bateman, and is maybe the most brilliant shot fired at audience expectations by this movie. That said, there’s a sense of this being undercut by Robyn’s mental instability and penchant for drug abuse. You might be forgiven if you look at Simon’s subtle domineering as a genuine firm hand to try and support/steady his wife while she gets back on her feet. Coupled with her miscarriage, there’s definitely a grayness to their relationship that drags out the reveal of what a scumbag Simon really is/can be in a super (dramatically) satisfying way.

Gordo, on the other hand, runs the opposite direction. He starts off being the very archetypal weirdo. His nickname is even Gordo the Weirdo! His whole deal is inscrutable and it’s telling that Simon is so caught up in his own internal calculus about what level of threat Gordo poses to his carefully constructed lies that he forgets to even inquire about what Gordo does for a living until pretty late in the game. As the stuff Simon does and doesn’t say about their past begins to show signs of being a façade, Robyn begins to investigate for herself and the question of whether or not Gordo is simply misunderstood drives a great deal of the dramatic misdirection of the movie.

But even as you begin to suspect that Simon is the real villain of the movie, tensions continue to escalate in unexpected ways and Gordo lashes out in disturbing and creepy ways. Speaking of creepy, this movie is very reminiscent of this year’s Creep but where that one is pretty much straightforward in spite of pretences, The Gift pretends to be straightforward and is anything but. This is especially true when you consider the dynamics I’m describing. Though Robyn is a good person and basically caught in the crossfire, she is not the only sympathetic character. Both Simon and Gordo are also sympathetic and Edgerton makes sure to show both  men being weak, vulnerable, and damaged. This does not forgive the things they do, but it makes the questions change from who is good or bad to something far more complicated.

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Even after Simon’s world unravels, the movie reminds you that he isn’t a full on sociopath.

The big question that everyone will be asking when coming out of the theatre is whether or not Gordo actually raped Robyn, or just wants Simon to always wonder whether he did and be symmetrically destroyed the way Simon’s lies destroyed Gordo. It’s an interesting question and it hinges a lot on how much sympathy the audience has for Gordo or Simon or both. I think this is intentional, as the movie is as much a mirror held up to show us ourselves as it is an exploration of people who have done things that I’m sure we can all recognize from our own lives, either having done similar or had it done to us. It’s hard to be the victim of bullying and not sympathize with Gordo, especially when Simon fake-apologizes and beats him up. At the same time, it’s hard not to sympathize with Simon, who is genuinely concerned about the safety of his wife and newborn.

At the same time, Gordo did his creepy surveillance on them and even if you want to contextualize it as his way of doing a background check to get an advantage (as Simon does to him), it’s still horrible and even being able to threaten that he raped Robyn is reprehensible to the extreme. Adding to the complexity is the fact that though Gordo might mean it when he says “good things happen to good people”, implying that he thinks Robyn is good and wouldn’t directly hurt her, he also wears that arm-sling completely for her benefit and takes it off right before abandoning her and Simon to whatever horrible anxiety might accompany the Schroedinger’s Rape that he has inflicted upon them.

I’d also submit the potentially controversial opinion that the movie is asking us about our own sense of justice, and giving us a pretty clear example of poetic justice maybe isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Gordo’s revenge on Simon is certainly poetic justice, but this doesn’t feel good does it? No. Partly because the movie takes the potentially questionable and manipulative step of using a rape as the crux of the question, and partly because we see how Gordo’s revenge affects Simon… a character that the movie has been tearing down in our eyes for most of its running time. It’s a testament to Edgerton’s writing, and all the performances involved, that we can feel anything for Simon by the end. Whether we have any sympathy for Gordo left… well… I think that’s best left up to you, and I certainly believe that Edgerton intended this as well.

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