Which is not to say Edgerton’s not interested in conventional thrills (I mean, you know something’s gonna happen to that dog). He knows how to intercut for maximum impact, how to build tension by letting a shot linger just a hair too long, how to couple his gliding camera with an errant noise or two in order to properly place us inside Robyn’s on-the-edge mindset. (One of the producers is the prolific Jason Blum, and there’s something noteworthy about how much of his work — the Insidious and Paranormal Activity series, Sinister, The Purge, this — is wrapped up in the basic fear of someone or something in one’s home without permission.) Edgerton threads the needle carefully, and feels the pressure to neither insert false scares nor get into any particular hurry; he takes his time on an early dinner scene between the trio, letting them sit in the uneasiness long enough to make us antsy as well.
Unsurprisingly for an actor-turned-director, he gets sharp, finely tuned performances out of his cast — and himself, managing to play Gordo with an off-balance and unpredictable mixture of enigmatic mystery and open vulnerability. Bateman may seem an unlikely pick, but he works well within that tiny pivot between wry detachment and smug dickishness. And Rebecca Hall, perpetually under-appreciated and always credible, makes for a sympathetic and compelling heroine.
Make no mistake about it — this is her movie, told almost entirely from her point of view. She’s the focus of pretty much every scene; there are brief interludes of Bateman at work, but when it comes to moments that matter (like her exit from a tense “dinner party” at Gordo’s), the camera stays with her. And perhaps that’s why the ending plays like such a betrayal: because up until then, she seems like an honest-to-God female protagonist, before the script reduces her to a piece of property that Simon is afraid Gordo has “marked.”
In a nutshell (and, y’know, last chance to not read the big spoiler): at the height of their anxiety over Gordo, Robyn has a presumably pill-induced collapse at home. When she comes to, she and Simon resolve to put the entire ugly episode behind them, put their lives back together, finally start a family, etc. And that’s exactly what happens, until it begins to unravel, and then Robyn goes into labor. After she has their baby, Simon returns to their home and finds one last series of gifts from Gordo: a copy of a key to their place, surreptitiously recorded audio of Simon and Robyn joking about Gordo’s sexual interest in her, and a video of Gordo in their house, during her blackout, suggesting he assaulted her while she was unconscious, and perhaps the newborn child is his. (This revelation is played, incidentally, as a betrayal/attack on Simon; Robyn is barely present in the closing scenes.)
As far as twists go, it’s a pretty stupid one; as a critic friend noted in the lobby after a press screening, the film seems willfully ignorant of the existence of DNA tests. But even without that objection, it’s still a might seedy button to hang your movie’s hat on — yet another example of (usually male) TV writers and filmmakers using rape as a shock button that’s pushed too frequently, and too carelessly. In The Gift, it’s not creepy, and it’s not clever; it’s just plain cheap.
It’s also, one could argue, part of the tradition of domestic thrillers that The Gift seems to pattern itself after; The Hand That Rocks the Cradle uses a sexual assault as a plot point, to pick the most obvious example, while the narratives and tension of films like Unlawful Entry and Sleeping with the Enemy are doubtlessly fueled by the threat (explicit or otherwise) of rape. But they made those movies in a different time, and in a different culture, and for a movie like this to trot it out as some kind of crude, bullshit “gotcha” leaves an otherwise commendable picture with a decidedly sour aftertaste.
The Gift is in theaters now.