1 Surprising ‘Gift’

Sly thriller defies audience expectations

Actor Joel Edgerton knows what the standard “couple in peril” movie demands. A false sense of security. Marital stress. A looming threat that explodes in the third act. And, of course, the kind of ridiculous plot twists that goose the action while causing our eyes to roll.

Only Edgerton, who makes his directorial debut with “The Gift,” holds off on the latter for as long as he can. What he delivers up until then is the kind of slow-boil tension we rarely see this time of year. The film’s title may be hopelessly generic, but this “Gift” offers surprising rewards.

Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall star as Simon and Robyn, a married couple moving into a sterile L.A. home. The house itself, all sleek angles and perfectly realized openings, is like another character in the film. That’s how Edgerton, the director, shows us he means business.

The couple runs into trouble when Gordo (Edgerton), an old high school mate of Simon’s, pays them a visit. Gordo is socially awkward but seemingly well-intentioned. His penchant for thoughtful gifts causes a rift between the couple. She thinks he’s just being sweet. Simon suggests darker motives.

What follows is rarely unexpected but unusually subtle in its delivery.

What follows is rarely unexpected but unusually subtle in its delivery. Bateman’s character is a jerk, but one who cares deeply for his wife’s safety. Hall’s Robyn accepts Simon’s Type A shtick, but there are some emotional flaws she simply won’t tolerate. And what do we make of Gordo? Is he as innocent as he appears, or will he emerge as a singular villain as the trailer (and past thrillers) suggest?

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Edgerton, who also wrote the screenplay, keeps us guessing so long we’re invested in the outcome as well as the reveal. He makes the most of his lead performers as well as a score that keeps our nerves perpetually jangled. The first-time director flashes a sense for maximizing even modest scares, and the way the camera navigates around the couple’s home forces you to ask just what might happen next.

Finally, of course, the truth emerges from the expertly sketched shadows. It can’t help but be a partial letdown, even if much of the character work completed prior grounds the silliness.for-adults

Bateman is often the exasperated Everyman. Here, he’s the guy at work you don’t trust to keep your coffee mug clean. It’s a quiet, damaged turn that says the actor knows how to upend our expectations. Hall’s assignment is harder. She’s the potential doormat in the tale, but her resolve under pressure shows she’s anything but a victim.

Edgerton plays up Gordo’s eccentricities, all the while reminding us he could simply be as uncomplicated, and sad, as he appears.

Formula eventually wins the day with “The Gift.” Most cliched stories could stand a bit of Edgerton’s approach, one that doesn’t take any film element for granted.

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