‘The Gift’
Director:
Joel Edgerton
Stars: Rebecca Hall, Jason Bateman
Rating: R
4 (out of 5) Globes 

The trailers for “The Gift” pitch it as one of those “[blank] from hell” movies that polluted ’90s multiplexes, wherein a nice-seeming stranger proves to be a frothing psychopath. It is in fact not one of those movies, even though it often pretends to be. Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman play Robyn and Simon, moneyed yuppies who move to a suspiciously glass-covered manse in the Hollywood Hills. They immediately happen upon Gordo (Joel Edgerton), the latter’s old high school classmate who worms his way into their lives, first awkwardly, then creepily. A creepy kind of nice, he has an ulterior motive, because of course he does, and it might involve a dark secret from Simon’s past.

“The Gift” also borrows from another genre: the hyper-twist movie, piling on the hairpin turns that cause jaws to drop with exhausting frequency. This too is a red herring. Without giving too much away, it’s a thriller that isn’t about shocks so much as it’s using the language of coarse nail-biters to get at some truly unsettling ideas. As it becomes quickly apparent, the real monster isn’t eerily sweet Gordo but Simon, whose emotional reticence is really masking a behavioral hiccup — one unbeknownst to the good-natured Robyn. “The Gift” then becomes the story of how Robyn realizes she may not know the man she married and with whom she plans to pop out some kids. It winds up having more in common with “Rosemary’s Baby” than, say, “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” being a deeply empathetic look at a woman being slowly dehumanized and used by unseemly forces, in this case by men who aren’t always aware of the evil forces lurking inside them.

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Edgerton also wrote and directed, and what he does is akin to a high-wire act, in the sense that “The Gift” keeps threatening to turn into the stupid movie it seems to be sending up. We keep waiting for Gordo to go full-nutjob, only for Edgerton’s script to pull back at the last second and veer off in a more sober but also more troubling direction. It never loses sight of the unnerving ideas at the center, though we’re constantly made to think it will. The screenplay is a work of primo audience manipulation. At one point Edgerton even sets us up to think a truly heinous twist is coming, only to surprise us with something less hectic but still upsetting. There’s even an ending that appears to be giving us one twist too many only to err on the side of logic.

Edgerton, at his first go at directing, adds to the discomfort with creeping slow dollies and slow prowls around their antiseptic home, turning it into a booby-trapped lair that comes to imprison both its occupants. It’s really a thriller by way of a drama, featuring three performances that milk tension out of subtlety. Edgerton is always a handful of steps away from being a full-on creep, too shy and touchingly nervous to be the guy who could haunt a pair of richies. Meanwhile, Edgerton the director manages to locate the dark side of Bateman’s beloved withering sarcasm routine. The coiled disdain and sarcasm that make him a hero on “Arrested Development” here become passive-aggression and then worse, all with Bateman barely changing up his game. 

But the movie really belongs to Hall, who’s impressive when she becomes gradually undone; she has the kind of expressive face that would kill in silent era melodramas. But she’s even better when conveying a mix of unease and deep sympathy for Gordo, the guy everyone else wants to write off as a weirdo. Trashy thriller fans will leave with their bloodlust untapped, but those who long for dark glimpses into the way people struggle, often fruitlessly, to escape their darker impulses will have their nerves sufficiently frayed.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge