‘The Gift’ Is A Surprising Thriller About Bullies And Victims

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).

Gordo builds them a koi pond, then poisons the koi and kidnaps their dog. You know, that old story. If this was just a Creepy Neighbor movie, a sort of Fatal Attraction meets The Cable Guy, I’m confident it could’ve been an enjoyable, well-executed version of it, based solely on the first half of the movie. The Gift, however, tries to bite off a bit more.

All along, there are hints that Bateman’s character is kind of a dick. He’s casually dismissive of his wife, he works in tech, and we occasionally see him lugging his golf bag around the house (unless a movie is specifically about golf, golf clubs are almost always movie shorthand for “this guy’s a dick”). Also, he’s played by Jason Bateman (I really think “charming, kind of a dick” is Bateman’s wheelhouse). Inevitably we find out that Bateman may have done something terrible to Gordo, which puts Hall in an interesting position: does she side with the tainted winner, the successful guy she suddenly realizes is capable of doing terrible things, or the broken victim, who, though initially innocent, may have been irredeemably altered by something that was done to him. It’s a heavy new wrinkle to add to the normally simplistic bully dynamic. “Who’s wrong?” is easy. “What now?” is hard.

What Joel Edgerton is attempting here is both interesting and admirable, and nothing short of amazing in the context of a Blumhouse movie. But as well-executed as the set up is, The Gift can’t quite land the dismount. In the final minutes we come to understand the “gift” of the title, a scene that hints at sexual violence in a way that’s sure to alienate half the audience. You can feel the influence of certain Korean thrillers. People are probably going to hate it because of the sexual nature, and because of the lack of a cathartic resolution, but that isn’t really the problem. The undertone of sexual violence was present all the way through, and I’m not sure the question about victims and victimizers deserves a “clean” answer.

The real problem with the ending is that it takes the one character we identify most strongly with – Rebecca Hall’s – and turns her into a passive participant in the outcome. The main character of the film ends the film essentially as a prop. Since this is a female character, it becomes a classic example of “sexism or flawed storytelling” (which you can argue about forever, because it’s like arguing about the tree falling in the forest). Either way, the outcome is disappointment.

Bummer, but you have to give Joel Edgerton and Blumhouse credit for trying to Trojan horse an idea this interesting into a thriller about a scary house. If The Gift had some acclaimed auteur’s name on it, people would be raving.

Grade: B-

Vince Mancini is a writer and comedian living in San Francisco. A graduate of Columbia’s non-fiction MFA program, his work has appeared on FilmDrunk, the UPROXX network, the Portland Mercury, the East Bay Express, and all over his mom’s refrigerator. Fan FilmDrunk on Facebook, find the latest movie reviews here.