The comeuppance of a bully is a theme that will never lack for likeability, and “The Gift,” actor-writer Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut, is a solid revenge thriller. It’s also a stirring psychodrama about people who intimidate and terrorize others as well as a thoughtful consideration of the consequences of bullying.
Edgerton, a screenwriter for “The Square” and “Felony” and actor in “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Rover,” has made a slick, smart, modestly scaled suspense drama that initially suggests a “Fatal Attraction”-style Hollywood thriller. It soon, however, brings to mind more insightful European fare (films by Michael Haneke or Claude Chabrol, for example) that addresses underlying pathologies of society’s comfortable classes.
Corporate salesman Simon (Jason Bateman) and interior designer Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move into a too-lovely modern home in the Los Angeles hills. Successful, dynamic, and trying to have a baby, they seem perfect.
At the mall, they encounter Gordo (played by Edgerton), a goateed eccentric who recognizes Simon as a former schoolmate. They exchange numbers, and, quickly, a bottle of wine, a gift from Gordo, appears on the couple’s porch. The gifts continue, and Gordo begins arriving at the pair’s home, uninvited. Without asking, he fills the pond with fish. Robyn regards Gordo as just a lonely oddball, but Simon doesn’t want him around. Soon Simon severs their ties. The rejection triggers sinister actions.
The menace level intensifies when Robyn starts sleuthing and discovers that Simon wronged Gordo during their school days. She learns that Simon himself was a bully. Further, he remains one.
Robyn hardly knows her husband at all, she realizes. Our own perception, too, of who the oppressor and the victim are begins shifting.
As is usually the case with genre pictures, cliches apply. Things go bump. A pet vanishes. A vulnerable woman gets in the shower. Particularly frustrating is that Robyn is saddled with the tired issue of coping problems related to a miscarriage.
But Edgerton’s direction is tight and tense, avoiding flashbacks and excessive twists. He fills the spaces between the shock points with interesting, stirring topics — from cutthroat competition in the corporate sphere, to how little we know about those closest to us, to, as in “Cache,” the arrogance of the privileged.
Characters continue to reveal facets of their personalities, filling in a complex picture. The actors all deliver.
Edgerton’s Gordo combines hurt and hostility creepily and sympathetically. Bateman’s Simon is a despicable machinator who operates with aggression and charm. Hall, without much to work with, gives the film a crucial moral center.
Allison Tolman, as a neighbor who is a friend to Hall’s Robyn, leads the barely used supporting cast.
Starring Jason Bateman. Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Allison Tolman
Written and directed by Joel Edgerton
Running time 1 hour, 48 minutes