Jason Bateman’s great in a superior thriller

FILM by Jorge Ignacio Castillo

The Gift
Opens Friday 7
4 out of 5

Blum Films has mainly been known for cranking out cheap horror movies that generated plenty of earnings with little risk involved (Insidious, The Purge, Sinister), but they’re moving up the food chain lately. With Best Picture nominee Whiplash, the company became a real player, and the pressure was on to repeat that success.

The Gift more than meets those expectations. The love child of Australian actor/first-time director Joel Edgerton (Warrior, The Great Gatsby), this superb thriller is one of those rare beasts that refuses to go where you expect it to. It’s narratively audacious, and the audience’s sympathies constantly shift from one character to another and back again.

The Gift also makes great use of Jason Bateman’s underrated talent for portraying cruelty hidden just below his good-guy veneer.

Bateman and Rebecca Hall (Vicky Cristina Barcelona) are Simon and Robyn, a well-off couple who’ve moved back to Los Angeles in hopes of a new start. It all looks promising until they run into Gordo (Edgerton), a high school classmate of Simon’s who sheepishly attempts to befriend them.

Gordo’s obsequiousness triggers Robyn’s compassion, but Simon is rather standoffish. There’s clearly a back-story in their relationship Robyn isn’t privy to, but it seems Gordo was routinely abused at school and Simon — head of the class, Mr. Popularity — was one of his bullies. Is Gordo looking for retribution, or is Simon misinterpreting his desire for rapprochement? The answer may be something entirely different.

The film features an interesting approach to the “bullies will be bullies” adage. Writer/director Joel Edgerton knows that in the real world, perpetrators rarely get their comeuppance — and they also often take those less-than-desirable personality traits to new heights in adulthood.

Bateman is pretty much perfect in this role. In fact, this is his first lead dramatic role in which you’re not constantly thinking, “Jason Bateman is trying to be serious, but I’m not buying it.”

Edgerton, meanwhile, shows tremendous poise and sharp wit. The cinematography isn’t on par with the film’s other elements (it’s just a US$5 million production, after all), but in a script-heavy movie, it’s not that bothersome. Even better, he also plays Gordo — and makes the character very troubling. As showcases go, it couldn’t get any better than this for him.

The weak link here is Rebecca Hall, whose Robyn is supposed to be the easiest character to empathize with, but who becomes a glorified plot device instead. Hall is better playing an icy, unattainable figure than someone to root for.

A typical problem in these types of potboilers is the number of loose ends left dangling, but The Gift keeps track of every single one. It may even trigger a moment of introspection or two (remorseful bullies beware).

This isn’t a “gotcha” film by nature, but The Gift manages to smuggle in a couple of good “jump-off-your-seat” moments that are even more effective because they’re so unexpected. As someone who’s seen thousands of scary movies, I’m damn impressed with just how well this film played me like a fiddle.