The beauty of watching The Gift (2015) is how often our own reactions to the film are reflected in Rebecca Hall’s expressive face: compassion, fear, doubt, suspicion.
Her character, Robyn, is in a vulnerable state when she and husband Simon (Jason Bateman) move to a new town: She’s given up her job; she’s lost a child. Perhaps that’s why when Simon’s high school acquaintance, Gordo (Joel Edgerton), stops by frequently, Robyn considers him merely sweet and socially awkward, and her husband wants to cut all ties, avoid encouraging the creep.
Gordo’s weird to assume such intimacy, her husband suggests. In fact, he’s always been weird. She shouldn’t encourage Gordo, Simon warns; the creep must have a crush on her. As viewers, we tend to agree with Simon’s instincts, and yet….Simon’s behavior to Gordo verges on cruelty. And so much hostility seems to suggest he’s lying about their past. When Gordo pens a letter in response to the end of their friendship, he writes that he was willing to let bygones be bygones. But not now…
When seemingly vengeful acts start occurring, Robyn is unsure: Is it Gordo? Or is her susceptible state making her paranoid? More troubling than her fears are her observations of her husband. He seems to be undermining her confidence at work and dinner parties. There’s a hint of ruthlessness about him she clearly didn’t notice before. And she starts to catch him in lies. Whom exactly has she married? And what has he done?
All three performances are stellar, with ambiguity in every shot of their faces, every word they speak. Edgerton seems sketchy from the start, but also kind and sensitive. He does triple duty as the costar, writer, and director of the film.
As Simon, Bateman appears loving toward and protective of his wife, but also condescending, and casually inconsiderate of others. Usually such a great everyman, Bateman plays this ambitious, morally questionable businessman with ease.
Robyn doesn’t know whether to trust herself at all, and so Hall’s gestures and smile are hesitant throughout. Hers is a winning, understated performance. As viewers, all we know for sure is that Robyn is far too nice, and we like her too much to be comfortable with her exposure–especially with all of those inadvisable, big glass windows in her home.
Women’s fears about the men in their lives are convincingly captured by Edgerton’s script. Others have written gorgeous pieces about Hitchcock’s similar insights. I can’t reach these authors’ eloquence, but I now always observe those traits in the latter’s films. As in Hitchcock’s Suspicion (or George Cukor’s Gaslight), The Gift is essentially about a marriage. While Edgerton has been praised for his building of suspense in the film, I like his subtle characterizations more, as when Robyn’s disgust at her husband’s callousness is echoed in the face of a neighbor, Lucy (Allison Tolman). I soon became less interested in the Should I be afraid? question, and more intrigued by another, much harder one: If my spouse treats another human being in a certain way, can I still like him? Is a momentary past cruelty just that, in the past? Or does it reflect who he is?
Joan Fontaine’s character always troubled me in Hitchcock’s film because she was too wrapped up in her own vulnerability to and love for her Johnnie (Cary Grant) to judge him as harshly as she should have for his immorality toward others. Robyn, despite her fragility, speaks up even for maybe-dangerous Gordo, and as a result never loses our investment in her–and that, Edgerton knows, is what keeps us hooked. If this is his first effort as a writer/director, I can’t wait to see what his next attempt will be.