Admit it : Jason Bateman has been playing smug, insincere assholes for so long now (am I the only one old enough to remember him as Derek on Silver Spoons?) that you just sort of assume he must be one in real life himself. Which isn’t to say that he’s been a “one-note Johnny” his entire career, but —oh, who the hell are we kidding? Of course he has. But he does it so damn well that I honestly don’t hold the fact that he’s never exactly “branched out” against him.
Here’s the thing though — for whatever reason, he’s pretty much always confined his shtick to the comedy genre (specifically the TV sitcom), and as a result, his characters have always been relatively redeemable. Yeah, he’s gonna stab you in the back, get one over on you, and generally fuck up your life, but gosh — he just can’t help himself, and it’s all in good fun. For that reason, a good number of folks were surprised to see him playing the lead in the new psychological thriller (being marketed as a horror flick, even though it’s not — blame the Blum House production company label, I guess) The Gift, but honestly, the yuppie scumbag named Simon that he’s portraying isn’t even a small step out of his “comfort zone” at all — it’s just that this time his actions have consequences, and drastic ones at that.
The Gift is the brainchild of writer/director/co-star Joel Edgerton, and is a deceptively simple modernized take on Hitchcock that lures you into its web quietly but confidently right from the outset as we meet Simon and his wife, Robyn (Rebecca Hall), who are aiming for a fresh start in life after a rocky couple of years in Chicago. Robyn had a miscarriage that triggered a downward spiral of chronic depression and prescription drug addiction, and Simon has taken a semi-prestigious job back in his old northern California stomping grounds in the hopes that a change of scenery will get their marriage back on track. When he runs into former high school classmate Gordon “Gordo” Moseley (Edgerton), though, things go from promising to weird to dangerous in no time flat.
Gordo obviously hasn’t been the capitalist success story that Simon is, and seems socially awkward and maybe even a little bit menacing once he starts popping by with gifts a little bit too frequently. Simon finally decides that enough is enough and that he’d better tell his “old friend” to back off, but Robyn, for her part, seems to think their newfound “third wheel” is harmless, to be sure, and maybe even a little bit endearing. Still, she agrees with her husband’s decision to tell the guy to ease out of the picture and, after a semi-scary bout of revenge (killing the fish he gave them, stealing their dog), the worst appears to be over when Gordo writes them a note saying that he was “willing to let bygones be bygones” but, since Simon doesn’t seem interested in that, he’ll just quietly fade into the rear view mirror and allow the couple to get on with their lives. Besides, Robyn’s pregnant now, and they’ve got other stuff to worry about.
That one line, though — “let bygones be bygones” — sticks with Robyn, and despite Simon’s steadfast assurances that he has no idea what Gordo’s talking about, she can’t help but feel there’s a whole lot more going on here than meets the eye.
Which, of course, there is. As it turns out, Simon’s whole “successful nice guy” act is a complete crock of shit, and she’s married to a monster — one who’s left a trail of victims in his wake. And that’s probably about as specific as I care to get, aside from stating the obvious, which is that one of his victims is, of course, Gordo. But just when you’re ready to have some genuine sympathy for him, Edgerton reveals that his own character’s desire to even the score has made him every bit as malignant and irredeemable as his one-time antagonist.
No doubt about it, The Gift serves up a fairly toxic stew of corruption and neuroses, and while the film’s sexual politics are “iffy” at best — with Robyn falling into the unfortunate role of a pawn in the sick game being played out by two men — the performances are so universally “spot-on,” and the pacing of the revelations so expert, that you’re willing to let that slide until the movie is over and have it trouble your conscience later. A few deftly- placed “cheap scares” add to the overall vibe of slowly-encroaching inescapable dread, and Edgerton’s moody, understated visual style gives things a uniquely “warm yet clinical” feel that suits the material to a proverbial “T.” Yeah, there are a few less-than-authentic instances along the way that strain credulity somewhat, but all in all Edgerton is in fine command of his project here, and manages to hit that “sweet spot” so few contemporary “thrillers” do where the audience knows it’s being toyed with like a fish on a line, but can’t help but allow itself to be reeled in anyway. In other words, this is supremely confident stuff.
Full disclosure : I got a free pass to see this thing, but you know what? I can say without hesitation that The Gift is worth the full price of admission, even at today’s hyper-inflated weekend evening rates. It’s a movie that never lets you feel as though your feet are on firm ground, and leaves an indelible “stain on the brain” once it’s over. The “feel-good movie of the summer” it most assuredly isn’t, but it’s probably the finest cinematic rumination on the ultimate emptiness of revenge since Coffy, and an amazingly polished and disturbing psychodrama that probably has Sir Alfred himself looking down (or up, depending on where you think he’s at) and giving a quiet, knowing, respectful nod of approval.