The Golden Age of Stylish Movies About Stalkers commenced with “Fatal Attraction” in 1987 and ran through the mid-1990s, with films such as “Pacific Heights,” “Single White Female,” “Sleeping With the Enemy,” “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” “Bad Influence,” “Disclosure,” “Fear,” “Unlawful Entry” and wow there were a LOT of movies back then with posters featuring good-looking humans and their good-looking tormenters.
Australian actor Joel Edgerton (“Exodus: Gods and Kings,” “The Great Gatsby,” “Warrior”) harkens back to those films (as well as movies such as “Cache” and “One Hour Photo”) for his feature directorial debut, “The Gift,” a chilling little gem that feels like a disturbing whisper in the night from start to finish. Edgerton is a natural and gifted storyteller. This is a movie made by someone who loves movies.
A perfectly cast Jason Bateman is Simon, one of those smart, undeniably charismatic, seemingly likable, upwardly mobile guys who thinks he’s better at disguising his impatience with life and with most people in general than is truly the case. His whole persona has a kind of “Can we get the check please?” overtone.
Simon and his wife Robyn (an excellent Rebecca Hall) have just moved from Chicago to Los Angeles, for a number of reasons:
- Simon has taken a new job as a top sales executive with a gigantic security firm based in Southern California.
- Robyn and Simon experienced a terrible personal setback in Chicago, and they want to leave the past in the past.
- It’s a time-honored tradition for scary movies of all types to begin with a family moving into their seemingly idyllic new home, blissfully unaware of what awaits them.
Simon and Robyn are shopping for accessories for their new place when Simon has a chance encounter with Gordo (Edgerton), who has to remind Simon they went to high school together. With his unfortunate haircut and facial hair, his trying-too-hard earring and his social awkwardness, Gordo immediately comes across as the kind of guy who has you considering your exit strategy five seconds after he starts talking to you. Simon tries to convey that to Robyn, but she ignores the signals (perhaps on purpose) and gives Gordo just enough information for Gordo to insert himself into their lives.
Gordo leaves gifts for Robyn and Simon on their doorstep. He shows up at their home in the middle of the day, while Simon is at work — and even though Robyn thinks Gordo’s a little odd, she seems to recognize a little bit of a kindred spirit, a fellow wounded soul. She lets him in.
Edgerton the director has a keen sense of pacing. When Simon, Robyn and Gordo have dinner, and Gordo has a little too much wine and starts venting about his life and aggressively complimenting Simon on how well he’s doing, the camerawork is so perfectly simple we feel like an awkward guest, eavesdropping on the conversation and soaking in the awkward pauses and unspoken but palpable tension.
“The Gift” is not without a couple of minor missteps. Early on, Simon does something really stupid — the kind of obvious move that might as well come with subtitles proclaiming, “HE’S GOING TO REGRET THIS.” Not necessary. A scene in which Simon and Robyn go to Gordo’s house feels a bit off from the start, and isn’t as subtle as it could have been.
Still. This is a tense, nerve-wracking thriller of the mind, with first-rate performances by Bateman, Hall and Edgerton — a tightly spun thriller with a wicked sense of humor and a wonderfully warped take on long-range karma. Just when we think we know where “The Gift” is going, we’re surprised.
And then surprised again.