Saturday, January 23, 2016

Catching Up: "The Gift"

 4 / 5 

Here's a movie Alfred Hitchcock would have loved.  The deliciously pitch-black humor and frequently malevolent world view of The Master of Suspense can be felt in almost every frame of The Gift, and though the film is the work of a first-time director and writer, it would not at all be a surprise to find out that Joel Edgerton studied Hitchcock's American films; the film he has made owes a lot to those movies in the best possible way.

Edgerton is also one of the stars of The Gift, which has a bigger cast than the three people at its center, but they are extraneous.  The movie is really about what happens when Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn Callum (Rebecca Hall) move from Chicago to L.A. and run into a man named Gordon Moseley (Edgerton), who Simon used to know back in high school.

These aren't twenty-something, or even thirty-something young adults -- they're all well into their 40s, they can even see 50 coming up, so high school isn't a nostalgic blast for them, it's a distant memory.  So, it's odd to reconnect, and so quickly, with one of Simon's old high-school pals.  Simon thinks there's something off about Gordo, who they nicknamed "Weirdo" way back when.  But Robyn thinks Gordon is a nice guy, maybe a little off, but also maybe just lonely the way people in L.A. can be.  She doesn't mind that Gordo comes by in the middle of the day, long after Simon has left for his downtown office.  Robyn makes them tea, Gordo sets up the TV in the new house, and they like to talk.

Gordo likes to leave gifts at the front door.  That's weird, right?  And the family dog goes missing.  Coincidence?  Something's going on, and Simon is convinced Gordo is behind it.  Why?  Because ... because!  Because the guy was named "Weirdo" in school, that's why, isn't that enough?

It makes Robyn a little curious.  She works from home, or mostly she tries to keep quiet and calm at home.  There's an indication something has happened in her past.  It started with a miscarriage, but it got ... worse.  Simon seems to be extra cautious around her.  She doesn't seem particularly fragile ... except for those few moments when she isn't quite right.

The Gift sets us on edge like this a lot, and Edgerton's screenplay and his assured directorial eye plays nicely with our uncertainty.  Robyn and Simon move into one of those glass-walled mid-century architectural homes, and Edgerton's camera loves to play with the idea that from certain places in the house, we can see both Robyn and Simon, though they can't see each other.  This is a handsome, well-designed film, to be sure, and its visual flair is augmented by the confident pacing and editing.  It's not a movie that telegraphs its intentions, it's one that reveals the things that, in retrospect, you wish you had noticed despite all those open walls and huge picture windows that seem to reveal everything -- but Edgerton manages to keep just enough hidden, nonetheless, filling the screen with reflections, shadows and visual doubles exactly the way Hitchcock did.

Despite the impressive design, the movie wouldn't work if the characters weren't compelling, and they certainly are: Simon is determined to get a promotion and start a family; Robyn wants to recover from a detour that took her into experimenting with pills; and Gordo wants to be friends again with his old pal.  But, no, it has to be more than that ... doesn't it?

There are a number of plot revelations in The Gift, some a little surprising, some massive game-changers.  The latter are ones that Robyn learns for herself, and it's information she wishes she hadn't known.  Like that moment in Psycho where Norman kills Marian, or the one in Vertigo when Scotty sees Judy, Robyn's discoveries set the story off in surprising directions, and a very late plot development pulls an insidious little twist as it continues shifting our sympathies for two of the film's most difficult, most fascinating characters.

In Hitchcock films, the good guy frequently became the bad guy, only to become the good guy again, until we weren't so sure where he stood.  The same happens here.  The characters played by Edgerton and Bateman, particularly, straddle the line between good and evil so carefully that they take a certain amount of (well-deserved) glee playing both sides.  These are essentially good guys who go bad -- unless they are essentially bad guys who know how to play at being good.  They're fascinating, and The Gift ends with one of them playing perhaps the ultimate head game, one that also leaves us scratching our heads and furrowing our brows ... but also smiling, because this is sinister entertainment, and it works so well.

Like any good guest, The Gift knows when to make its departure, and it fades out at just the right moment, when virtually nothing has been settled except that the bad guy gets his way.

Perhaps.  Hard to know for sure.

The film ends with an open-ended sense of uncertainty that could undermine a lesser movie, but in this case just leaves the audience wearing a nasty little grin.  You almost feel bad for the people in the story you just watched -- if only, in their own ways, they didn't all deserve exactly what they have coming to them.

Viewed Jan. 23, 2016 -- VOD

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