Were you ever not very nice at school? A bit of a tosspot to others, perhaps. Ever so slightly a jerk now and then and here and there? Were you inclined to take advantage of the weak, the vulnerable, the defenceless and lonely, to tease and wound and give not a single thought to the profound and lasting consequences that may come back to bite you in the posterior decades later? No, neither was I. At least I don’t think I was. Still, The Gift is enough to give you pause. If you are affected by any of the issues in this film, best log on to Friends Reunited, locate anyone to whom you may once have said even the teensiest mean thing. Just in case. And grovel, abase yourself, say you’re really really sorry and mean it. Because you just never know.
The Gift is a psychological thriller about a bully, his victim and a chicken coming home to roost 20 or so years later. Meet Simon, cocksure and stubblesome and just back home on the west coast to take up a super-duper new high-rise job in internet security. He and his thoroughbred trophy bride Robyn have moved into a spiffing hillside rental, one of those houses mainly consisting of glass that should only ever be occupied by people with nothing to hide. By the second scene, Simon and Robyn are out shopping for furnishings when a blurred figure at the edge of the screen refuses to duck out of shot. There he is again at the till.
Introducing Gordo, who wears naff threads and a stupid goatee and remembers Simon from school way back. Simon doesn’t seem to recall. No matter. Gordo, who somehow finds their new address, is soon dropping off quite random gifts — wine, fish for the pond, window cleaner — plus coming round, fixing the TV and dropping hintlets about the past and letting bygones be bygones. When he invites Simon and Robyn to dine at his gated residence, which seems a trifle swanky for an oddjobbing army vet, Simon says they need to break off contact. And, as Gordo remembers all too well from their schooldays, what Simon says Simon gets.
It’s soon apparent to Robyn, who is trying to conceive, that Something Is Wrong. She can’t sleep, hits the meds, hears noises along corridors, faints. The dog is dognapped, which is a bit of a worry. The fish are finished off, ditto. When challenged to front up to past misdemeanours, Simon does that thing men do when women challenge them to tell the truth: gets up, avoids eye contact, kicks up a storm by way of distraction.
Filmed on a budget, The Gift plays out in domestic interiors, contains few scenes with more than three characters, and so has the feel of a play that has been opened out. In fact, the script is by Australian actor Joel Edgerton, directing his first feature, who also plays Gordo as a creepy blank canvas. Even before it hurtles off the rails, the plot has enough holes to fill the Albert Hall. The main one is a whopper: for some reason Robyn (Rebecca Hall giving good watchful fawn) can’t spot that her husband, as played by Jason Bateman, is the most unspeakable jackass from the get-go. There is a very silly subplot involving Simon’s monkey phobia, while the script has not very sparky thoughts about internet snooping. Also it’s impossible to care about anyone, even the missing pooch Bojangles.
Edgerton makes much use of mirrors and frosted glass to work up the idea that no one is quite who they say they are (apart from the smug Californian supporting players, who have no personality at all). The script could have done with a couple more turns round the track in development to tighten it up. But Edgerton certainly knows how to make you jump out of your skin, and the finale — when the title becomes clear — has a satisfying cameo for a newly born baby with a foggy look in his eyes.
Of course in the real world Gordo could have taken the sensible path and spilled everything to a shrink. But unlike vengeance, the incremental baby-steps of therapy aren’t very box-office. So Gordo adopts the Trump doctrine (Ivana, that is, not Donald): don’t get mad, get even. Edgerton will go deeper with his next film. Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m just off to track down some old school chums.