The Gift (2015)

The Gift first published by Sight & Sound, October 2015

Review: In the opening scene of The Gift, as Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) view a stylish house in the hills of Los Angeles, Simon peers in from the porch at his wife, their faces close but separated by a glass sliding door, and draws a little love heart in the condensation left by his breath. It is an endearing gesture, indicative of the couple’s intimate proximity – but that invisible barrier between them also hints at a certain distance.

If, as they try to rebuild their home and start a family, Robyn is haunted by a recent history of pregnancy gone wrong and ensuing mental breakdown, then Simon too comes with ghosts from his past, embodied by Gordon Mosely (Joel Edgerton, also the film’s writer and debuting director). From the same high school as Simon, Gordo (whose childhood nickname ‘the Weirdo’ was also the film’s working title) runs into the couple as they, significantly, are buying furniture for their new home, and then he keeps popping up unannounced, simultaneously charming Robyn and irritating Simon with his gift-bearing presence.

The visual motif of the glass barrier also keeps recurring. Gordo’s face replaces Simon’s in the window as he visits every day. Later, we see Robyn rubbing steam off the shower’s glass door only to discern that the figure standing on the other side is not Simon but Gordo. A key conversation between Simon and Robyn, as her suspicion of his duplicity emerges, takes place with Robyn addressing not the husband beside her, but his reflection in the bathroom mirror. And the last time the film shows this couple in the same place, again they are separated by a pane of glass. Even as Gordo is set up to be the classic villainous interloper in a conventional stalker thriller, his deceit and insidious aggression keep finding their mirror in Simon, whose veneer of middle-class respectability we are seeing through a glass darkly. Only when the transparent doors of the home are violently shattered is Simon finally revealed for who he really is – and himself left broken.

Here Edgerton, who has honed his craft penning The Square (2008), Felony (2013) and The Rover (2014), has taken a subgenre normally associated with cheap sensationalist thrills, and stripped it down to intense character drama. A pot is seen boiling, goldfish die and a beloved pet mysteriously vanishes – all signifiers that Gordo’s creepy infiltrator will conform to the type of the ‘bunny boiler’ – but instead of becoming a crazed killer like the male antagonists in, say, Pacific Heights (1990), Unlawful Entry (2002), Harry, He’s Here To Help (2000), Le Serpent (2007) or Coffin Rock (2009), Gordo prefers quietly to observe and project Simon’s greatest fears, and to offer a parodic simulacrum of Simon’s own bullying, manipulative practices – which, in a subversive touch, define Simon as a winner in the vicious hierarchies of the playground and the corporate ladder. Ultimately the tensions in The Gift are not artificially resolved in an unrestrained climax, but rather the seeds of doubt – sown by Simon, symmetrically replanted by Gordo – remain exposed under glass.

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Synopsis: LA, the present. As Simon and Robyn move (from Chicago) into a new home, Simon is spotted by Gordo, who went to high school with him years ago. To Simon’s immense irritation, Gordo starts visiting unannounced and leaving gifts (including koi for their pond). Even after he sees an insult left by Simon, Gordo invites the couple to dinner at his surprisingly affluent home – which in fact belongs neither to him nor, as he eventually claims, to his ex-wife. Simon warns Gordo to stay away. The koi are poisoned, and Simon and Robyn’s dog goes missing – but returns unharmed, with a letter from Gordo stating that he had only good intentions, and was prepared to “let bygones be bygones.” Robyn discovers she is pregnant, but insomniac, paranoid and back on prescription drugs, she finds that Simon has had secret background checks carried out on both Gordo and Danny, a rival for a work promotion – and that at school Simon had spread a false rumour (with devastating consequences) that Gordo was gay. Robyn insists that Simon apologise to Gordo – but instead Simon attacks him. Danny disrupts a dinner celebrating Simon’s promotion, accusing Simon of fabricating slanderous reports about him. Robyn goes into labour, and tells Simon she wants him to leave. Simon is also fired. Gordo leaves Simon a gift-wrapped video implying that Gordo may be the father of Robyn’s newborn son.

© Anton Bitel