The Aisle Seat - Movie Reviews by Mike McGranaghan
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THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan


The Gift

Ever since Fatal Attraction took the country by storm in 1987, there have been dozens of “psychos from hell” movies. Some have been very good; even more of them have been terrible. (Last year's No Good Deed springs immediately to mind on the latter count.) The Gift, which represents the feature directorial debut of actor Joel Edgerton, is not only good, it's one of the most skillfully executed you're likely to come across. The film is a great example of how intelligence in storytelling creates far more suspense than generic attempts at shock.

Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall play Simon and Robyn, a married couple who have just moved back to his home area in California to “get a fresh start” after some personal problems. They buy a beautiful home, and Simon gets settled into his fancy new job at a billion-dollar business. Not long after arriving, they bump into Gordo (Edgerton), an old classmate of Simon's. He seems a little too eager to reconnect, showing up at their house and repeatedly leaving gifts on the front porch. Robyn thinks he's a nice, albeit lonely, guy. Simon explains that his nickname in school was “Weirdo Gordo,” and insists they need to cut ties with him as soon as possible. This proves easier said than done, especially when it becomes clear that Gordo has every intention of bringing an old secret to light. Robyn tries to figure out what that secret is, getting more than she bargained for in the process.

Of course, there's a lot more to it than that, but part of what makes The Gift so effective is that the plot genuinely offers surprises. Most thrillers of this sort follow a well-worn template. This one repeatedly veers away from the routine. The most significant way involves a switch in how we perceive Jason Bateman's character after he “breaks up” with Gordo. This switch ensures that we see neither Simon nor Gordo in purely black-and-white terms. Such ambiguity in drawing its characters allows The Gift to meaningfully delve into a substantive theme about bullying, its aftereffects, and the mindset that causes someone to want to be an alpha male.

The movie also deserves great credit for finding a whole different ending for the “psycho from hell” picture. When The Gift is over, you walk away thinking about what it had to say as much as you do about how it kept you on the edge of your seat. It's refreshing to have a picture like this find a new way of resolving things. And what the film comes up with is satisfying on a very deep level.

As writer/director, Joel Edgerton shows impressive command of tone. He constantly – and patiently – cranks up the tension little by little, so that by the time the big finale rolls around, the suspense level is off the charts. Edgerton has worked as an actor for directors such as Kathryn Bigalow (Zero Dark Thirty), David Michod (Animal Kingdom), and Gavin O'Connor (Warrior). He has obviously studied their careful approaches, as well as the work of Alfred Hitchcock, who almost certainly would have admired the devious way The Gift continually subverts your expectations.

Edgerton turns in a great performance as Gordo, too. The character is not your basic “nerd.” He's clearly a guy who might have been popular in high school, had people given him a chance. There's a wounded quality to him that comes through, whether he's acting out of kindness or malice. Edgerton makes sure we see Gordo as a fully-developed character, not just as an antagonist. Rebecca Hall is also excellent. She anchors the story, perfectly showing how Robyn tries to process the increasingly complicated dynamic between her husband and the stranger whose actions may be either malicious or simply misinterpreted. Perhaps the best performance, though, comes from Jason Bateman, brilliantly playing against type as Simon, who is more complex than he initially seems. Bateman gets across the crucial idea that Simon doesn't understand his own nature – or at least chooses not to – which turns out to be his biggest flaw.

The Gift is one of the best thrillers of the last decade, hands down. The actors all do stellar work, and the story is about much more than just delivering cheap jolts. It has something of real value to say about the way people treat one another. While there are a few really good “jump scenes,” the movie's scariest element is how acutely it understands, and depicts, the psychology of bullying.

( 1/2 out of four)

Blu-Ray Features:

The bonus material on the Blu-Ray starts with an alternate ending, which is a slightly different version of what was in the theatrical cut. Edgerton introduces it and reveals why it was not used. While interesting, the sequence clearly over-explains Gordo's actions just a bit, although it also definitively answers an ambiguity that made The Gift slightly controversial with some critics. There are also four deleted scenes, two of which are longer cuts of what's already in the movie. Of the two new scenes, one is a light moment at a dinner party, the other a second exchange between Simon and two cops. Edgerton again provides on-camera commentary explaining why these bits weren't used.

Afterward, there are two short features. “Karma For Bullies” is a two-minute promotional piece in which Edgerton and Bateman talk about the movie's theme of bullying, while “The Darker Side of Jason Bateman” runs a minute and has the director explaining why it was so important to cast the actor against type. Two theatrical trailers for the movie are here, as well.

Rounding out the disc is a full-length audio commentary from Joel Edgerton, who provides a wealth of information about The Gift's origins and production.

All in all, the supplements are entertaining, and having the filmmaker's perspective is valuable.

The Gift is rated R for language. The running time is 1 hour and 48 minutes.

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