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Saturday, August 8, 2015

Review: The Gift

Falling out of love is hard. You give someone your trust, your affection, you thought that what you had meant something to them. And then you learn that it didn't mean anything at all. That you've been used. That they were just doing whatever felt good in the moment. Now -- oh, wait, I think I should clarify something. I'm not describing the plot of The Gift; I'm describing the experience of watching it. This is a movie that comes so close to being an intelligent, mature thriller, only to drop the ball at the goal line, and then somehow kick the ball backwards into an opposing player's hands shortly before stumbling about, knocking its own teammates to the ground just to make absolutely certain that no one anywhere will be able to fix its mistakes. I admit, that metaphor got away from me a bit, so, just to clarify: The Gift is a very good movie that has a final act that is so staggeringly dumb it runs completely counter to seemingly everything the film was actually about up to that point in a desperate bid to... I don't know. I literally can't fathom the intentions of the human beings who wrote, produced, directed, and acted out that last act.

I was initially surprised to see Blumhouse, the production company behind unlikely hits like Paranormal Activity, Insidious, and Sinister, return to a similar narrative well to that of Plush, Catherine Hardwicke's little-loved 2013 stalker-melodrama, to which this bears no small resemblance. In The Gift, Robyn (Rebecca Hall, Iron Man Three) and Simon (Jason Bateman, Arrested Development) move back to California after a miscarriage and a nervous breakdown tear their lives in Chicago apart. There, they meet Gordo (Joel Edgerton, Exodus: Gods and Kings), an old high school acquaintance of Simon's clearly struggling with life. He gives the couple a 'welcome back' gift. And then another, and then another. Then he invites himself over for dinner. Then he invites them to his place. The man doesn't have boundaries, but he seems to mean well. It isn't until they try to 'break up' with him that things go from creepy to seriously messed up for the couple.

Joel Edgerton, an actor making his feature debut as writer/director, seemed to be doing it right with The Gift, at least at first. His Gordo is off-putting and casually menacing, but you're never sure if that's just social anxiety or if there really is something darker buried deep inside. Jason Bateman, meanwhile, plays a dramatic version of his typical comedic straight-man, the above-it-all bro who just wants to live the best life possible, and doesn't really 'get' why all this crazy shit keeps happening to him. Hell, Rebecca Hall gives a killer performance as his wife, a woman coming back from a precipice to realize that she may not want the life she has, turning the stock 'menaced housewife' figure into an emotionally nuanced character who, for the film's superior first two thirds at least, is always great to watch. Even the supporting players, populated by talented character actors like Allison Tolman (Fargo), Busy Philipps (Cougar Town), and Wendell Pierce (The Wire), are well-cast, if unfortunately underutilized.

The film almost never devolves into jump scares. Indeed, as we peel back layer after layer of what's really going on with these characters, the horror becomes delightfully true to life. Edgerton's direction is lacks Dan Gilroy's assured debut Nightcrawler, but the script occasionally unearths that same hidden vein of menace, that same bleak take-down of modern corporate culture. Edgerton's was more bound by the dictates of genre, but he seemed to have solved that problem, borrowing just as heavily from 1987's thematically brilliant critique of Reagan's America, The Stepfather, to craft a chilling modern melodrama that used its creepy edge to look at class in America today.

The Gift is not, it turns out, prescient. It isn't even really of its time. The fear at the heart of The Gift's finale is positively medieval, a preposterous, incredibly objectifying left turn that is both nonsensical and dramatically inert. It layers meaningless twist after meaningless twist on its final half-hour until it has forgotten who we're supposed to empathize with and what it was saying.

And yet, I can't really hate The Gift. After all, I very much enjoyed two thirds of the movie! Hell, maybe even more than that. It's really the last fifteen, maybe twenty minutes of a hundred minute movie where things go all to hell. Until then, Edgerton's film cannily walks a tightrope act of empathy and identification, playing with our expectations of this kind of film in clever, unpredictable ways. It's times like this I'm thankful I don't have to leave a grade. What would I even give this? A 'B-' for being a satisfying, small-scale thriller that unfortunately falls apart in the end? A 'D', because I walked out of the theater so thoroughly frustrated, because those final twists showed that the film never really was all that ambitious after all. Whatever, grades don't really matter. What matters is this: The Gift is a sharp, off-kilter melodrama for much of its runtime, canny summer counterprogramming with solid chills and very good performances... up until the moment none of that is true anymore at all, and the film falls prey to its own macho bullshit. Whether or not its ultimate failure makes its interesting opening less tempting is, of course, entirely up to you.

The Gift is out now in theaters nationwide. Written and directed by Joel Edgerton, The Gift stars Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, and Joel Edgerton.
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