There’s always been an edge to Jason Bateman that showed us a nasty piece of work waiting to get out. That’s nicely exploited in Joel Edgerton’s “The Gift,” a psychological thriller about a husband and wife inconvenienced, then harassed by a former high school classmate of the husband.
It works for the film in giving Bateman his meatiest role in years, playing a man who dismisses the “loser,” the guy nicknamed “Weirdo” Gordo back in school. It works against the film because we can see it almost in an instant, long before his wife (Rebecca Hall). But knowing that doesn’t rob “The Gift” of its third act surprises, which are numerous and doozies.
Simon and Robyn are shopping to furnish their huge home when Gordo recognizes Simon in a store. He’s awkward, plainly less sophisticated. It says something of Edgerton’s skills that the guy a scary, hulking presence in “Animal Kingdom” and “The Great Gatsby” (he was Daisy’s brutish husband, Tom) physically shrinks, here. His face and his screen baggage suggest “menace,” but the performance has a bit of kicked puppy about it.
Gordo insists they exchange numbers, and Robyn is a little surprised when a gift turns up on their doorstep — How did he get their address? — and a bit more surprised that Simon didn’t call him to thank him. Gordo starts showing up during the day, looking for Simon, so Robyn invites him to dinner. He seems needy, gifting them for every kindness.
And Simon is a little testier and snarkier than usual around him. “Did he seem right to you?” Robyn starts to wonder what’s in the two men’s shared past. And we start to wonder about Robyn’s history, too.
Meanwhile, Gordo gets needier and more intrusive. Simon mocks him behind his back, to their neighbors and his colleagues and to Robyn. Robyn’s sympathy is aroused.
Edgerton, whose writing credits include the tight Aussie thrillers “The Rover” and “The Square,” ratchets up the tension without really ramping up the suspense. We know bad things are coming, but we cannot figure who is the most responsible.
But Simon’s confident assertiveness to this “nuisance” in their lives is too telling. That’s not Bateman’s baggage. Edgerton’s passive response to this aggression isn’t his baggage, either. We’re distracted, a little, by the guessing game we’re playing with the filmmaker when we should be drifting toward the edge of our seats.
Robyn, a “door half-open” kind of person, according to her husband, always wants to err on the side of kindness. But Hall, as she has in many films, seems too passive even as Robyn is starting to unravel the history and figure out what to do.
Still, when the payoffs arrive, they are jarring and at least possible, if not entirely plausible. That ensures we don’t take this “Gift,” a smart, adult thriller, for granted in a summer swamped by comic books and jokey spy pictures.
MPAA Rating:R for language
Cast: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton
Credits: Written and directed by Joel Edgerton. An SFX release.
Running time: 1:48