The Gift has the odd quality of being both a pleasant surprise and a disappointment. At the very least, it’s probably not what you’d expect.
Of course, it’s hard to know what to expect when you combine the biggest name in haunted house movies (Blumhouse) with the feature writing and directing debut of Hollywood’s fifth or sixth most famous Australian (Joel Edgerton). Especially when they blatantly steal the title of a Sam Raimi movie (note: why do movies do this?). The Gift‘s trailer promises us a creepy neighbor movie starring Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall, with Joel Edgerton as the neighbor. Almost as if Joel Edgerton waltzed into Jason Blum’s office saying, “I’ve got the perfect movie for your studio! You can make it on one condition: I get to play the haunted house.”
That alone would qualify as innovative for the company who gave us Ouija, and in a genre where the biggest questions most often posed are “will I get scared?” and “how scary are the ghosts?” The surprise of The Gift – the shock, really – is that it isn’t just about Scary Thing vs. Attractive People, it actually has a few interesting ideas to chew on. Namely, it’s about who’s scarier, the tainted winner or the broken loser?
Bullying as a theme is nothing new in thrillers and horror movies, but it almost always comes in one of two forms: the cathartic revenge movie, where the bullied exacts retribution on the people who threw tampons at them or whatever; or the evil spirit movie, where something terrible has happened to someone and it’s back for vengeance, usually on people that weren’t responsible for the terrible thing in the first place (and oftentimes the evil thing was just evil to begin with, a la Michael Myers or Freddy).
In The Gift, married couple Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman have moved from Chicago into a beautiful new house in California, where Bateman’s character has taken a fancy new job. Hall has become the proverbial bored housewife, all alone in her big new house. Soon they meet Gordo (Joel Edgerton), a high-school friend of Bateman’s whose lack of boundaries gradually evolves from eccentric to sinister. Edgerton has created a wonderfully watchable oddball in Gordo, the ultimate creepy lurker, who always drags out small talk just a beat too long and doesn’t know quite when to leave (I had an old roommate exactly like this). He peppers his hand-written notes with smiley and frowny faces, which is a great flourish, emojis being the logical crutch for someone who can’t send or receive social cues without the help of child-like hieroglyphs. (Gordo also offhandedly mentions having been in the military, which seemed like a throwaway, borderline offensive wrinkle that made me think of this column).