In a lot of ways The Gift is a tricky film to review. Due to its suspense thriller genre, it’s at the very least difficult to discuss too much of the film’s plot without ruining the surprise of some of its bigger twists, so I’ll try to tread lightly there. What’s even more complicated about this thriller in particular, though, is that I enjoyed the majority of its run time, but the last couple of narrative twists in the concluding few minutes left me feeling deeply uneasy. So much of The Gift works, but the little that doesn’t makes a huge, uncomfortable impact. If the overall quality of a thriller relies on the strength of its twists, it’s tempting to allow the last few minutes of The Gift poison the generally likable film that precedes them, but that feels more than a little unfair to me.
Here’s a short list of things that work in The Gift: the imagery, the tone, the tension, the acting, and the brutal reflection on how cycles of teenage bullying don’t stop on graduation day. Much of the credit to the film’s success goes to the performances from the three leads. Joel Edgerton (who also writes & directs here) brings the quiet menace of an abused, but sadly loyal puppy dog on the verge of biting back to his role as the film’s would-be menace, Gordo. Rebecca Hall affords an unusual amount of intellectual competence & believable fragility to her role as the Typical Horror Movie Victim, Robyn. Jason Bateman carries most of the weight here, though, nimbly navigating a role that requires him both to be a befuddled everyman & (as the film’s advertising already spoiled, freeing my hands here) a vile, immature highschool bully that never outgrew his abusive ways. Bateman’s turn as Simon truly is the film’s bread & butter, calling into question the means by which a teenage bully can translate their brutality into adult situations, namely in professional & domestic arenas.
Most of The Gift unravels the power dynamics of Simon’s & Gordo’s shared past through Robyn’s perspective, which is where the film shines brightest. There’s a stark simplicity to the movie’s visual palette that makes for a sleek-looking thriller. Sliced apples, pills in a kitchen sink, traditional horror film reds emanating from brake lights, and a sly reference to The Shining (there’s a hospital room numbered 237) all overpower the film’s cheaper elements, like last minute plot twists & dog-exploiting jump scares. It’s when the perspective shifts from Robyn’s POV to Simon’s in the third act that The Gift wavers a bit. It’s difficult to determine if the audience is supposed to empathize with the lifelong bully in the final half hour or indulge in his comeuppance, but honestly neither effect is all that satisfying, so it ultimately doesn’t matter.
I’m firmly on the fence with how all of The Gift‘s individual elements play out in its conclusion, but there’s plenty to enjoy in each moving part as isolated components (especially in the visual starkness & the effective performances from its three leads) before they’re uncomfortably misused. I liked most of the film, but I definitely left the theater with a lingering, bitter taste in my mouth, which I guess isn’t the worst way a movie can affect you, all things considered. It’s unlikely that The Gift will have much box office staying power or be making any Best of 2015 lists as the year winds down, but it does have enough going for it that it could potentially make for some decent Netflix viewing whenever someone’s in the mood for a mostly well-executed thriller starring a bitterly unlikable Michael Bluth. There are certainly worse fates than that.