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Saturday, August 8, 2015

The Gift 2015 * * * Stars

The GiftDirector: Joel Edgerton
Year: 2015
Rated R
Rating: * * * Stars
Cast: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton

Jason Bateman's latest is 2015's The Gift. In truth, it's like nothing you've ever seen him in before. He's volcanic and wouldn't you know it, this marks his best performance to date. Now granted, "Gift" sure ain't no comedy (Jaybird's normal shtick over the last thirty years). It's psychological warfare, a bender of a movie that puts your fragile mind through the ringer. No one (including any audience member) is safe, there's no true protagonist, and despite a ho-hum ending (which won't compel you but make you feel a little sick to your stomach), I would still call it one of the best things to come out this year. For everyone who wants to escape the summer movie standard, just picture this: Two grim, torn up main characters go at it (mano a mano) while a pushover pregnant lady stands as an innocent pawn. Intrigued by my play on words? I sure as heck hope so.

Misled by its trailer (this is not a thriller or a horror exercise but a hard-edged drama), using tons of gifts as props (naturally), and presenting its conflicted narrative right from the get-go, The Gift chronicles one Simon (Jason Bateman). After getting a job promotion as a budding salesman, he moves from Chicago with his Chicago-bred wife (Robyn played by Rebecca Hall), to Southern California where he grew up. He buys a new house (containing lots of glass and mirrors which only add to the visual palate of the director's vision), gets settled in, and has hopes of starting a family despite said wife garnering a previous miscarriage.

In terms of his personality, Simon is a heavy drinker and relatively smarmy (I feel his character may have a little regret bottled up inside). His better half is a former pill popper and overly nice. As they are buying products to spruce up their new abode, a man from Simon's past comes around and talks both of them up (Gordon played by Joel Edgerton). You see, Simon and "Gordo" went to high school (together) over twenty years ago with something fishy going down between them (in a car). I won't give away anything more only to tell you that Gordon continues to make his presence known and the spousal simpletons start to feel a tad uncomfortable. As a moviegoer, you always sense that something troublesome is coming around the corner and that's the rub deeming "Gift's" opening hour highly effective. Essentially, you have a vehicle here that is a revenge vignette (my take is that Gordon wanted to secretly remind Simon that he might have molested "Gordo the Weirdo" a long time ago) and something that exposes the lead role for what he really is (Bateman's Simon was a bully back then and he's still a bully today). In one scene, Gordon proclaims, "you may be done with the past but the past ain't done with you." No kidding.

Now I read a review where a critic talked about The Gift coming out of a time capsule circa 1992. Wow, that's dead-on. Consenting Adults, Unlawful Entry, and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (all released in 92') literally gave me the same vibe. But hey, "Gift" still manages to stand on its own. It's out of the box, it's fornicating, and it burns slowly. It may riff off the aforementioned flicks but that riff is a tribute, a hightail sonnet bent on relishing the concept of taking in a person who's not all there mentally, and letting him/her turn lives upside down. Don't say you weren't warned.

"Gift" is directed by newcomer Joel Edgerton (he mostly acts and has done just two shorts). It's not necessarily scary or horrifying, just eerie. It's also mildly violent yet not bloodcurdling. He shoots the proceedings as if he's channeling some Adrian Lyne stint from the late 80's or early 90's. There's tension throughout but he creates it when it's not really there. Very impressive. In retrospect, you have a solemn tale set in suburban Los Angeles, a smoke and mirrors look that spells dread, and even a homage to 1980's The Shining (room 237, hint hint). Oh and for once, the film score is not filler. It sounds like what great film scores used to project back in the day. For just under two hours, I sat transfixed, salivating for an ending that I knew wouldn't be that great. But let's face it, the journey with The Gift is the high point. Fingernails will be chewed off, your posture will suffice, and bathroom breaks will surely have to wait. 

All in all, I figured you'd expect me to use a metaphor with the title given. Well, here it goes: The Gift as a movie, has a nice bow, a beautiful grade of wrapping paper, and if you shake it, something inside feels like a dream present. You open the present, thank everyone who gave it to you, but feel a tad dissatisfied. No worries, it's still virtually unreturnable. The result: 3 stars.

Written by Jesse Burleson

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