The Gift opens on ominous shots of an abandoned, modernist mansion, grey stone and brown wood gleaming dully in the afternoon L.A. sun. Soon, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), a professional couple from Chicago, will be escorted through the hollow house by a real estate agent. But for now it lies dormant, the camera lurking nervously through its expansive corridors. The house, largely enclosed by revealing panels of glass, might represent Simon and Robyn’s goals to rebuild their lives – to overcome recent turmoil, to begin a family, to forge a relationship built on honesty and transparency – but it also represents debut director Joel Edgerton’s interest in the cinematic power of spaces, the potential of architecture to unnerve.
Edgerton’s camera drifts through ghosts of cinema past. The Gift’s exploitation of space recalls Roman Polanski’s ‘Apartment’ trilogy – specifically Rosemary’s Baby (which is paid subtle homage in the film’s closing minutes) – and many other ‘scary house’ films besides, but its narrative draws more deeply from ‘90s thrillers like Single White Female or, especially, Scorsese’s Cape Fear remake. Robyn and Simon’s encounter with ‘Gordo’ (Edgerton), an old school friend of Simon’s, begins awkwardly and steadily trends towards the terrifying. There’s something unmistakably, deliberately off about Edgerton’s performance; he seems less like a man than a broken creature wearing a slackly-fitting man costume. When Gordo joins the couple for dinner, he quivers on the border between boyish vulnerability and masked menace. It’s impressive work from Edgerton – the kind of thing that could have easily toppled over into camp, but never quite does.
As writer-director, Edgerton steadily increases the tension throughout the first act, with the increasingly taut narrative operating as a tug-of-war of audience identification; while our sympathies are initially with Bateman’s character – our apparent protagonist – we’re encouraged to question his motives and background. Why is this school ‘friend’ of his so fixated on him – to the point of making frequent, uninvited visits and leaving carefully wrapped presents outside their front door – if Simon claims to have little to do with him in high school? Are we suspicious of Simon simply because, let’s be honest, Jason Bateman tends to play douchebags … or is there something darker?
Since this is a thriller, I imagine you can guess the answer to that question. As The Gift slowly unwraps its secrets, however, its most successful elements – the tender uncertainty of who to relate to, the precise pleasures of its use of space (with all credit to cinematographer Eduard Grau and editor Luke Doolan) – are largely discarded. The film settles on Robyn as its heroine, as she begins to investigate the truth behind Gordo and Simon’s past, and the setting moves beyond her new home to new settings – dive bars and hospitals shot without the panache of earlier scenes (It doesn’t help that Hall’s watery-eyed performance, while totally okay, is overshadowed by her male co-leads).
The intent here is to grasp at something approximating Caché, or perhaps Lost Highway (the shots of the L.A. nightscape unmistakeably recall late-Lynch, which doesn’t seem accidental). The kind of movies where a threat proves less physical than deeply personal – the threat of uncovering the truth of one’s identity, and the injustice and dishonesties upon which one’s character is constructed. It doesn’t quite get there, though: the film’s flabby midsection more closely resembles Before I Go to Sleep than a Michael Haneke movie.
It’s not that the film is derailed entirely – it remains largely compelling – but that the combination of a less interesting setting, less interesting acting and a drip-feeding of heavily-foreshadowed exposition saps it of the precise, chilling atmosphere that made its first hour so memorable. By its final minutes – in which Edgerton returns to the Cape Fear-cum-Rosemary’s Baby mode in which he began – I couldn’t help but be a little disappointed, despite finding the film overall very impressive. I suppose gifts never quite live up to the promise of their shiny packaging.