Subtlety and restraint aren't qualities one expects to find in most modern thrillers, but "The Gift," whose marketing has suggested a sleazy domestic thriller in the vein of "The Hand That Rocks the Cradle" or "Single White Female," finds ways to surprise its audience at every turn. Marking the impressive directing debut of actor Joel Edgerton, the film is as ruthlessly efficient a psychological chiller as one could ask for.
Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall play Simon and Robyn, a married couple who've just moved back to Simon's hometown of Los Angeles. Out shopping, they run into Gordon (Edgerton), a former classmate of Simon's. He's socially awkward -- but pleasant -- and Robyn makes an effort to be nice, even as Simon is quick to give him the brush-off. He explains to his wife later that back at school, Gordon was popularly known as "Gordo the weirdo." Soon after, a wrapped bottle of wine appears on their doorstep, and Gordo begins dropping by the house unannounced, to the increasing discomfort of Robyn, who's frequently alone. It quickly becomes clear that Simon and Gordo have some unsettled business from the past and, one way or another, they're going to deal with it.
Doubt, guilt, and revenge converge as Edgerton keeps our sympathies shifting, until we're not sure who we can believe. The film constantly seems to be teetering on the brink of the slasher-like tendencies of its 90's predecessors, though it never tips over that line. Hall is superb, and Edgerton finds the malice beneath Gordon's aggressive niceness. Meanwhile Bateman adds a new twist on his standard role, dialing down the humor but cranking up the animosity. Tense without ever resorting to cheap jolts and over-the-top violence, "The Gift" keeps ratcheting up the tension to deliver something altogether more unsettling.