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Gift, The (2015)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"A.K.A. It's Your Move--The Adult Years"
4 stars

We have all had that awkward experience where we are out doing something and happen to run into someone that we vaguely recall going to high school with back in the day. Under normal circumstances, this would result in a couple of minutes of stilted conversation, introductions to spouses or significant others and vague promises to catch up sometime later that both parties realize will never be fulfilled. However, what might happen if there was more to the backstory of the people reunited than meets the eye. For example, what if one used to be relentlessly bullied by the other? What is going through the mind of the one who used to be bullied? What about the one doing the bullying? Do you use that time to confront the past or ignore it under the theory that what's past is past? Does it turn out that the two have changed or do they wind up falling into those past patterns, only with greater possible consequence than in their school days? These are just a few of the numerous questions raised during "The Gift," a reasonably taut and intelligent thriller that may not be a masterpiece but which gets things done in a lean and efficient manner, though the lack of simplistic horror movie jolts promised in the wildly misleading trailer may wind up attracting the wrong viewers while putting off those who might appreciate it after all.

Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall star as Simon and Robyn, a nice young couple who have just moved back from Chicago to Simon's hometown of Los Angeles so that he can start a big new job and they can work on having a family following a tragedy along those lines a few months earlier. One day, while shopping, an odd and nervous-looking guy comes up to Simon and says that they went to high school together. This is Gordo (Joel Edgerton) and while is his certainly socially awkward, he seems pleasant enough during his conversation with Simon and Robyn, even though there is the sense that there is more going on between the two old classmates than meets the eye. Having gleaned their address, Gordo proceeds to send them a few gifts--a bottle of wine, some koi for the pond at their new house--and turns up unannounced a couple of times, once for dinner. Robyn thinks Gordo is perfectly sweet but something about him seems to put Simon quietly on edge, though not in ways he his willing to articulate to Robyn.

Finally, Simon has had enough and during a dinner at Gordo's house--or so it seems--he finally tells him to his face that neither he nor Robyn want to see him anymore. In response, Gordo sends a note that begins with him apologizing for overstepping boundaries but which then goes off on a tangent about how he was willing to let bygones be bygones. Then strange things begin happening to Simon and Robyn--their dog disappears, the koi meet an unpleasant end--and while they are sure that Gordo is behind it, they can't actually prove it and besides, Gordo seems to have vanished. Time passes and everything seems to be going well--Simon gets the promotion that he has been angling for and Robyn is finally pregnant again--but the thing about letting bygones be bygones continues to nag at her, along with Simon's increasingly shrill insistence that there is nothing to talk about, and after poking around a little bit, she uncovers a number of shocking and long-buried secrets that force her to reevaluate everything that she knows, or thinks she knows, about both Simon and Gordo.

Written and directed by Edgerton, his first gig behind the camera, "The Gift" is being sold as a straight-up horror film, presumably because it was co-produced by Jason Blum, the guy responsible for such shriek-heavy duds as "Paranormal Activity," "The Purge," "Ouija" and last month's gumdrop "The Gallows." This may help lure people into theaters during the all-important opening weekend but other than a couple of big "BOO!" moments of little dramatic consequence, Edgerton is more interested in playing a long game, both in terms of telling a story in which things are happening because of incidents that occurred a quarter-century in the past (cruelty, as we learn, has no shelf life) and in terms of letting scenes build and develop in a slow and steady manner rather than simply going for the cheap shocks. The results aren't perfect--there are time when I found myself wishing that the screenplay had landed in the hands of a more visually inventive director--but this is a solid debut nevertheless that suggest that Edgerton may be a filmmaker to watch.

As an actor-turned-director, Edgerton is clearly more interested in the performance than in visual fripperies and in this case, that decision has clearly paid off nicely. For example, before reinventing himself as the overbearingly nice and virtuous guy on "Arrested Development" and any mid-level comedy he could sign on to in the last few years, Jason Bateman made a career as a child actor out of playing smug little shits that you just want to slap upside the head every time you saw them. Here, he takes that kind of character and does a very effective job of imagining what he might be like a couple of decades down the line--he seems perfectly nice on the surface but there is a quietly hostile subtext to virtually everything he does, especially in the way that he gets his way all the time yet frames it in such a way that it is as if he is doing someone else a favor for which they now owe him. As his better half, Rebecca Hall has to do most of the thing required of actresses in the thriller genre--fainting, shrieking, taking a shower--but she gets to shine in some more dramatic moments as well, especially in the later scenes when she has to quietly register the horror and disgust that she now feels in regards to the husband that she thought she knew. In front of the camera, Edgerton dials his star charisma way down and does an good job of portraying a guy who was beaten down in life for reasons out of his control--like the best genre villains, his Gordo will give you the willies but at the same time, most viewers will feel an enormous amount of sympathy for him as well.

"The Gift" is a solid bit of B-movie entertainment--the kind that Hollywood used to knock out back in the day when they were still interested in producing singles and doubles instead of swinging for the fences with every single film. As noted, it probably won't satisfy those looking for little more than 90 minutes of cheap thrills (even the climax involves more sly and ultimately troubling mindplay than actual physical confrontation) but those looking for an admittedly dark but ultimately relatable morality tale that illustrates in grim detail how the past is never really past for many people will find it to be a smart and gripping tale that may occasionally stumble but never really falters. Its goals may be modest but it does a much better job of achieving them than most of this summer's offering and that is certainly a welcome gift to behold.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=28682&reviewer=389
originally posted: 08/06/15 16:40:15
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User Comments

4/15/18 Langano Tense thriller with a great ending. 4 stars
2/13/17 morris campbell solid a thinking mans revenge tale 4 stars
11/03/15 action movie fan some good suspense but a weak ending 3 stars
9/11/15 TonyK Good script & above average performances 4 stars
8/12/15 orpy 4 at first then 3 stars for the ending. Crappy end. 3 stars
8/12/15 Bob Dog A new classic in the long neglected thriller genre! 5 stars
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  07-Aug-2015 (R)
  DVD: 27-Oct-2015

  07-Aug-2015 (15)

  27-Aug-2015 (M)
  DVD: 27-Oct-2015

Directed by
  Joel Edgerton

Written by
  Joel Edgerton

  Jason Bateman
  Rebecca Hall
  Joel Edgerton
  David Denman
  Beau Knapp

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