Note: This review is spoiler-free. Promise.
You watch the trailer for Joel Edgerton's The Gift (opening August 7th) and you think: yeah, OK, I get it. You've got a troubled family moving into a spacious new house. You've got an interloper attempting to insinuate himself into their lives. You've got ominous notes and unwanted packages left on the porch, a few telegraphed jump-scares, a dog who may or may not end up in peril...you see this stuff, and you think back to a dozen other domestic thrillers. You think you know what you're in for.
You don't know what you're in for.
While the trailer for The Gift may be a little too spoilery for its own good, believe me when I say that there's more here than meets the eye. This is the best kind of thriller, the type where every character's got a secret, the tension doesn't stop mounting until the credits roll, and the stakes are both personal and unpredictable. It's well-acted and beautifully-shot (on more than one occasion, I was reminded of Jeff Cronenweth's work on One Hour Photo, which is not a comparison I'd make lightly). It's smartly-written and unexpectedly vicious. It will send you out of the theater debating the particulars of what you've just seen, and then it will weigh heavily on your mind for days afterwards. It is a mean-spirited, nasty piece of work. I loved it.
Here's the setup: Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move to Los Angeles from Chicago. They've relocated primarily for reasons related to Simon's job, but we're also given the impression that they're hoping to start over somehow. Shortly after moving in to their fancy new home, they're out shopping when they have a chance encounter with Gordo (Joel Edgerton, pulling triple-duty as writer, director, and co-star). Turns out, Gordo and Simon know each other, and both are shocked to find themselves face-to-face again after all these years. They do what any of us would do in that situation: they exchange numbers, promise to catch up soon, and go their separate ways.
Shortly thereafter, a bottle of wine shows up on the porch. Then Gordo starts dropping by uninvited, just to say hi. One night, Robyn invites him to stay over for dinner, and a spectacularly awkward conversation follows. It's clear that Simon and Gordo, who knew each other in high school, have some unresolved issues. It's also clear that Simon and Robyn have issues of their own, issues that probably aren't being helped by this strange dude who's suddenly popped into their lives. Wherever this is headed, you know it probably won't be good.
Needless to say, things escalate. And that...well, that's all I'm willing to say about The Gift's plot. If you've not already seen the trailer, don't watch it now. Don't read any other reviews (if you absolutely need a second opinion, clock the film's 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes and leave it at that). Don't go digging for more information. Walk into this one as cold as possible, and I promise you will be rewarded.
What I can tell you is that The Gift marks an impressive, confident directorial debut for Joel Edgerton. I can also tell you that he nails the role of Gordo The Weirdo (Some of you will recognize the dude from the string of impressive performances he turned in in a number of not-that-impressive movies: The Thing remake/prequel, Attack Of The Clones, Smokin' Aces*, and - most recently - Ridley Scott's Exodus: Gods And Kings). He is excellent in this movie - legitimately creepy - and he's written an excellent, legitimately creepy screenplay to match. This is Edgerton's baby through and through, and if this movie hits as big as it should**, I will be eagerly anticipating whatever he does next.
Also worth complimenting: the work done by Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman. Early on, Hall brings just the right amount of doubt and vulnerability to her role, and later in the film - when she's regained her confidence and started seeing things a lot more clearly - she sells the transition. Bateman's also excellent here, doing a variation on the hilariously acidic sort-of-asshole he's been playing for the past decade. The difference here is, there's nothing funny about Simon; without that humor, Bateman's an interesting, unexpectedly intimidating presence. I had zero trouble believing this guy as an aggro alpha-male, and it makes me curious to see what else he can do.
There is a lot to unpack in The Gift (my wife and I debated elements of the film for days after our screening), and I look forward to doing that in the weeks ahead. For now, I'll just strongly recommend that you make an effort to catch this one when it hits theaters in a few weeks. Not only is The Gift one of the summer's most pleasant (and nastiest) surprises, but you're going to want in on the discussion surrounding this movie...and trust me: you really don't want to have this thing's secrets spoiled for you by some jag-off on social media. It's worth experiencing for yourself.
* = I can already sense some of you leaping for the comments below to take me to task for calling Smokin' Aces "not-that-impressive". Glad you liked it! I did not. Sorry.
** = I suspect The Gift's incredibly dark third act will prevent it from "hitting big" at the box office (it traffics in the kind of darkness that might very well turn off casual audiences), but no matter: we'll love it just the same.