‘I’ ON CULTURE
In the desert of generally weak movies of August, it is a happy surprise to find a small-scale gem like Joel Edgerton’s The Gift. It falls into the class of horror film where there are no monsters, at least no inhuman ones. When someone (or thing) in a ski mask with knife-like fingers chases the main characters, you know who to root for. When the bad guy is human, the stories are often deeper. This film reminds me more of Fatal Attraction, Cape Fear or, to be more precise, Carrie, where revenge, rightly or wrongly, is the key factor.
Edgerton, who wrote, directed and performs in the film, has given us a movie that keeps us guessing until the very end. He proposes the idea that the villain and victim may change roles, forcing the audience to wonder which is which.
In the movie, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are an attractive young couple moving back to California from Chicago, where Robyn suffered from the stress of city life. Returning to the town where Simon grew up, they bump into Gordon (Edgerton), a man who went to high school with Simon. He quickly begins to intrude on their lives.
With no social graces or inhibitions, he sends presents to them and visits constantly, often when Simon is not around. Robyn, more than a bit naïve, is delighted to find someone who knew her husband when he was younger. Simon, who barely remembered Gordon, thinks him odd and wants Robyn to avoid the other man. Then things begin to happen… bad, spooky things. Robyn begins to feel that she is not alone in the house while Simon is gone.
As we learn more about Gordon, we begin to see cracks in Simon’s façade. Originally seeming strong and honorable, we discover a secret deep in his past. And Robyn begins to see the changes as well. Her husband had done something to Gordon to bring on the action, and things begin to swing out of control. But then there are more twists and turns with an ending that defies expectations.
Bateman is excellent in a role quite different from his normal, good-guy roles. He is a god in his own mind, but he overlooks his feet of clay. He seems oblivious to what he has done in the past, dismissing his own poor behavior. Hall plays her role in a more fragile way. She is vulnerable; she lost a baby through miscarriage, and there seems to be another untold story about that. She seems incredibly naïve in her willingness to accept Gordon, and even more in quickly accepting his stories. Edgerton is excellent as the socially awkward, vengeance-seeking friend. Every time we seem to get a handle on him, he changes.
Edgerton seems even better as a writer and director than as an actor. The story is far more complex than similar ones. At first his character seems a bit of a clown, then a menace, then a victim, and then it changes once or twice more. Until more is revealed right near the end, we have no anchor to hang on to. The camera lingers at interesting places, down empty halls in the great house the young couple bought, enhancing the sense of danger and alienation.
I am not a fan of horror movies. Those who have read my columns over the years might have noticed that I almost never review them. And that is because, frankly, I don’t like them and generally avoid going. But when there is more drama than melodrama, when real characterizations rule, I make an exception.
In fact, this is a superb character study of two twisted men, Gordon and Simon. Both are flawed and creepy in their own ways. We all know people similar to them. We easily identify the socially awkward because they seem to have no real limits. They annoy us. But we also have to deal with people who seem to be charming and strong and honorable, until they change and reveal they are actually wearing masks, playing a role.
This small film lays all of that out with great style. I was not certain of where it was going, but appreciated the ride. It is far better than the assorted weak superhero films out this summer.