Blumhouse has typically focused on supernatural or violent horror, so it’s interesting to see them backing Joel Edgerton’s moody stalker-thriller The Gift. And it’s a good move on Jason Blum’s part; Edgerton’s script draws on classics from Fatal Attraction to Caché, and he does a great job of building and releasing tension, if sometimes a bit ham-fistedly on his first time in the director’s chair.
The general outlines are pretty familiar. A couple — Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) in this case — catch the attention of a creepy, obsessive weirdo. In fact, that was his nickname, “Gordo the Weirdo” (Edgerton), back in school when Simon knew him. Gordo starts out friendly, in an awkward, too-familiar way, but at some point his overtures begin to feel menacing, and Robyn feels unsafe.
They’ve just moved to California, where Simon grew up, from Chicago, where they leave behind some familial tragedy. We see boxes of toys, and Robyn tells her new neighbor, Lucy (Allison Tolman), that she had been pregnant. We also see her stealing pills from Lucy’s medicine cabinet, which doesn’t seem to be a new behavior. It’s never made quite clear whether her self-medication was a cause of her miscarriage or if the habit developed in the aftermath. Either way, Simon seems less than totally caring and supportive of her recovery.
Of course it could be just an understandable sense of anger and frustration at Robyn’s addictive tendencies, but I doubt it. Simon has the easy self-confidence of a guy who grew up as one of the popular kids, and that bro-y swagger he still carries pays off in glad-handing the bosses at his new job.
Our suspicions about Simon’s childhood are quickly confirmed. Gordo remembers how easily things like the class presidency came to Simon, and when Simon finally tells him to leave them alone, Gordo responds in a letter that he was willing to “let bygones be bygones”. Clearly something happened in their past that Simon doesn’t want to talk about, and we start to wonder if Gordo might not actually be the bad guy here.
It’s satisfying to think about the school bully finally getting his comeuppance. It’s really one of the two most dominant myths about bullies, that they’ll get knocked down a peg eventually, in some sort of karmic retribution. The other, of course, is that they’re just taking out their own pain on a scapegoat. Edgerton does well to avoid this latter idea, but he makes a pretty distinct point of leaning on the first. But wouldn’t it be scarier for a thriller to exist in a moral universe that doesn’t care about punishing bad behavior?
On the other hand, we never totally get to the idea that Gordo is an innocent victim in all this. Some of his creepiness comes from the aura imbued by the genre elements, but he still earns much of it honestly. And yet, one big question goes unanswered: why did Gordo make contact in the first place? If I were in a home furnishings store and happened to notice one of my own high school tormentors, I’m sure I wouldn’t bother reintroducing myself and definitely wouldn’t try to see them again after that point. It’s not terribly hard to come up with some sort of reasoning behind Gordo’s behavior, but it feels like a question that the film itself should really have a good answer for.
Still, despite a few bumpy or threadbare patches, The Gift is a perfectly serviceable thriller that takes an approach few others try. We get a nice heel-turn from Bateman, and Edgerton acquits himself well enough on both sides of the camera. It’s solid work, and I’m looking forward to his next project.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.