The ‘creepy new acquaintance’ subgenre of psychological thriller is one that got a lot of play in the 80s and 90s. A stranger inserts him or herself into the lives of a seemingly happy and comfortable upper-middle class couple. At first he or she seems like the ideal friend/neighbor/lover but then, gradually, unsettling signs of instability start to appear. They hang around when they’re not welcome. They get resentful, demanding, jealous and, inevitably, violent. From Fatal Attraction to Unlawful Entry to Pacific Heights, these films possessed a predictable arc that always culminated in thrills that were more slasher than psychological as the hapless normals and the home-wrecking psychopath tried to kill each other. Coming into Aussie actor Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut The Gift, I expected to be folded into the familiar embrace of a well-worn genre template. It turns out, however, that this one actually is a psychological thriller, a remix of that familiar format that uses the interloper like a scalpel with which to dissect its complex cast of characters. It’s a tense, entirely unpredictable film that keeps feinting towards the path its predecessors all took but then ducks away in directions altogether more unsettling.
It begins on a low-key domestic note as a married couple, Simon (Justin Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), buy a house in Los Angeles after moving there from Chicago. While shopping for furniture, they bump into Gordon (Joel Edgerton), an old school friend of Simon’s who immediately insinuates himself into their lives in a manner that’s more needy than suave. He starts showing up regularly at the house while Simon’s at work, bringing gifts and doing chores for Robyn. He even fills the empty fish pond in their garden with koi. Soon, the imbalance in their relationship—“an asymmetrical friendship” as Simon’s colleague puts it—starts to spark barely-suppressed hostility. Significantly, Simon and Robyn have different reactions to Gordon’s insistent manner. Simon, who never liked him to begin with, gets increasingly belligerent and dismissive. Robyn, a somewhat more sensitive individual, recognizes the aberrant nature of Gordon’s behavior but can’t quite bring herself to fully condemn him, interpreting his mumbling awkwardness as tragic rather than laughable.
A major factor in the film’s success is Edgerton’s accurate diagnosis of Justin Bateman’s screen persona as an essentially off-putting one. Bateman usually gets to play the straight man in comedies (Arrested Development, Horrible Bosses) or, more rarely, the curmudgeon who turns out to be lovable (Bad Words).
A major factor in the film’s success is Edgerton’s accurate diagnosis of Justin Bateman’s screen persona as an essentially off-putting one. Bateman usually gets to play the straight man in comedies (Arrested Development, Horrible Bosses) or, more rarely, the curmudgeon who turns out to be lovable (Bad Words). But there’s often something smug about his outwardly amiable everymen. He plays characters who are wrapped in self-regard and entitlement but wear those qualities like badges of honor. Edgerton, who also wrote the movie, exploits this performative quality to the hilt. Simon is a high-level sales rep at a security firm and a corporate stooge of the worst kind, the sort of suit-wearing bro willing to backstab anyone who stands between him and a corner office. While his relationship with Robyn seems initially to be a loving one, the stresses brought on by Gordon’s intrusion start to reveal cracks. Their dynamic is skewed and Simon’s workplace alpha-male attitude translates over to his home life. He’s a bully and, apparently, always has been. However crazy Gordon acts, Simon is slimy enough to come off almost as badly. And Robyn, played with Rebecca Hall’s characteristic combination of emotional fragility and determination, is caught in the middle.
As the bigger picture comes together, the film takes a turn into something that plays out almost like moral allegory. About two-thirds of the way in, the perspective switches from Robyn’s to Simon’s, a move that really illuminates the latter’s role in this interpersonal drama, bringing the film’s notions about moral reparations and the ghosts of the past to a boil. There are no cheap stalk-and-slash sequences and the violence is almost entirely of the emotional kind. Edgerton is interested in who these characters are, what they’ve done to each other and the lasting trauma left by those actions. In other words, unlike most filmmakers who set out to make these movies, he’s genuinely invested in the first half of the phrase “psychological thriller.”