What to Watch: The Past Becomes the Present in ‘The Gift’ (2015)

Tense thriller with great performances starring Jason Bateman.

The Gift is a 2015 thriller about a young married couple’s lives who are thrown into a harrowing tailspin when an acquaintance from the husband’s past brings mysterious gifts and a horrifying secret to light after more than 20 years.

Many of us have skeletons, dark secrets, and things we’re generally not proud of that occurred in the past. Life goes on, maybe – hopefully – we become better people and learn from them. But what if they come back, unearthed, and stronger than ever before? That’s the general, baseline premise of the 2015 thriller known as The Gift.

THE STORY: By moving to California from Chicago, married couple Simon (Jason Bateman) Callum (Rebecca Hall) are ready to start a new life. Simon has secured a great promotion working high-level security for a billion-dollar company, and the hope is that with less stress, he and Robyn can begin to build a family.

By way of a random encounter, his old life isn’t quite ready to give way to his new one. Old high school classmate Gordon “Gordo” Mosley (Joel Edgerton), reintroduces himself to Simon through dinners with he and his wife, and simple gifts such as a bottle of wine and fish food for their house fishes. What Robyn sees as awkwardly sweet, Simon sees as annoying and uncomfortable. Is this just a well-intentioned welcome-to-the-neighborhood gesture? Or might this be only the first piece of an elaborate vengeance plan?

The Gift
The Gift, 2015 © Blumhouse Productions

WHAT TO LOOK FOR: Don’t let the trailers fool you. The trailers of The Gift painted the movie as a basic psycho-stalker thriller not too unlike similar films in the genre. As formulaic as these movies may be, the genre has long been a guilty pleasure favorite of mine, akin to liking trashy reality television. This is what I thought The Gift would be, and as such, I knew I’d enjoy at least somewhat.

But, The Gift ends up being much more than that, and became a real surprise in 2015, ending up with a Certified Fresh seal on Rotten Tomatoes. Helmed by Joel Edgerton, his initial foray into the directing world is nothing short of impressive. Initially, Edgerton starts out with traditional subgenre staples. House in relative seclusion so that any law enforcement would take a while to show, and lead characters who couldn’t possibly be anything but good-natured people. And of course, a mysterious person who isn’t immediately weird, but just off enough that you want nothing to do with them.

The setup is there for a respectable, if unmemorable, watch. But after a fairly conventional first act, Edgerton – not only acting and directing but writing – flips the script on many genre conventions and places the movie on a psychological path that didn’t seem possible. Cool thing is, Joel lays the pieces out in front but not obviously so, be it small pieces of dialogue that come up later, or still shots that eventually add into the finale. His story looks at whether “bygones can truly ever be bygones,” and just as importantly, how one act can forever damage a person’s life. On its own, these themes/questions aren’t new in cinema, but in this type of film, it’s genre-subverting. Reading this is very vague, but intentionally so; the less known, the better.

The Gift
The Gift, 2015 © Blumhouse Productions

A GREAT MOMENT: Two, actually. The Gift centers around the three characters of Simon, Robyn, and Gordo. All three characters and perceptions of these characters evolve throughout the runtime, but Simon in particular goes through the ringer. Before Ozark, this role really was Jason Bateman’s first predominately drama work. Usually the straight and dry funnyman, Bateman is quite the revelation here, and he not only holds his own, but elevates much of what he’s given.

Act one culminates with the Callems receiving a dinner invite to Gordo’s home. This invite is puzzling due to an incident that sparked Gordo leaving their home abruptly after seeing something on the refrigerator, but the couple agrees to reluctantly accept the invite. Left alone for a few minutes when Gordo has to take a personal call, Simon begins to tell Robyn how he really feels about his old classmate.

During this moment, Simon pulls no punches about why he feels Gordo has resurfaced into his life. He makes it very clear that he believes Gordo wants to be him, living his big life, banging his wife with his “little pee-pee.” This moment is played a little for laughs; however, it is somewhat uncomfortable as well.  It is the audience’s first look into Simon’s backstage personality, and discovering that he’s not as earnest or upstanding as he appears to be upon first look. Robyn’s reaction to seeing her husband act out like this is essentially our reaction as the audience. Robyn serves as a conduit for the audience’s feeling, caught in the middle of this reignited feud between two grown men.

The Gift
The Gift, 2015 © Blumhouse Productions

The second moment occurs after the past event between Simon and Gordo resurfaces fully, and Simon is guilt tripped by Robyn into apologizing for what he did 25 years earlier to Gordo. To hopefully not spoil too much to anyone who has still yet to see this great movie, to steal a wrestling term, what happens here is known as a “double turn,” where the proverbial good guy becomes the bad guy and the bad guy a good guy (or at least a more neutral, relatable guy). The movie had gradually been building to this moment, but to actually see it go down is mindblowing. Even the way Edgerton shoots some of this scene with the low angles fully paints Simon as the domineering character with no remorse of what happened before, and the dialogue used and expressions given feels very high-school esque. Visualize lockers in this scene; it could easily take place in a John Hughes production because it is that spot-on.

THE TALLY: Much more than a run-of-the-mill crazy person thriller, The Gift is easily one of the better mainstream thrillers of the decade, possibly ever. Psychologically stimulating with legitimate social commentary on a hot button issue, it gets even better on rewatches with the subtleties fully seen. It’s what to watch.

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