Robyn and Simon (Hall and Bateman) move into a palatial new Californian home. They seem wealthy and happy, but are also escaping for a ‘new start’. Simon is shopping for furnishings with his Interior designer wife when an old school friend, Gordo (Edgerton himself), tries to jog the memory of his former classmate Simon by introducing himself, rather awkwardly. The couple excuse themselves walk away giggling at the embarrassing meeting, thinking no more of it. When a giftwith a red bow is left on their fron doorstep, without giving away their address, the situation is poised to tailspin. The scene is set for a series of increasingly odd and dangerous attempts by Gordo, or “Weirdo” to make himself part of their new lives’, until his point is very definitely being received.
The screenplay, written by Edgerton, is extremely deft. He establishes character very effectively, and then when they change and interact it makes them all the richer as they progress through the film. Mostly subtle hints and innuendo are left as clues to everyone’s secrets, not labelling them but slowly revealing their darker aspects. The film painfully peels away what Simon and Robyn thought they knew and held dear, with climactic and macabre implications. Ambiguity is a clear weapon in Edgerton’s full debut as a writer. There was only one clunk – when Simon talks to Robyn about his relationship with his father, as a mirror to Gordo’s – which strikes a bum note. In a story which should be full of cliché and stereotypes; facing your past, how you behaved when you are young affects who you are now, bullying and secrets between spouses all feel like unfertile ground for a gripping, tense and genuinely mysterious plot.
The stage-like quality of the two-handed performance of Hall and Bateman heightens the focus on their chemistry as a couple and the way they grow suspicious of one another. Bateman is particularly menacing under his initial ‘good guy’ veneer as the increasingly sinister ‘affections’ of his ex-schoolmate get closer and closer to home – and by extension, the truth. However, it is Rebecca Hall as Robyn, who carries the majority of the film. In a story about what happened one school day in the distant past, she is the object of the present action. Gordo’s gifts and good will to her establish the platform for him to get into to her husband’s head. He ingratiates his way into their lives to a shocking extent. Clearly he has not forgotten the past, despite his description of past pain being ‘a gift’ if used in the right way.
The central narrative is littered with small examples that flesh out the characters and grow the layers of plausibility towards them as people, not just theatrical vehicles. There are strains of addiction, varying types of abuse and the concept of success in American culture. It is a very concise piece with plenty of post-cinema discussion points.
Allison Tolman (Fargo) supports Hall, as the ‘friendly neighbour next door’ and provides a sounding board for Robyn’s increasing anxiety, Tolman plays a competent if peripheral role in a ménage a trios that no-one wants for Christmas, except perhaps as a stocking-filler.
Review by George Meixner
Lionsgate UK releases The Gift on Digital HD November 30th and Blu-ray & DVD December 7th, 2015