Movies like this are all about ratcheting up the tension until a big reveal in the finale.
That is also what makes reviewing movies like this difficult without getting into spoiler territory.
The Gift is the story of Robin (Rebecca Hall) and her husband Simon (Jason Bateman). They have just returned to Simon's home town on the west coast to get a fresh start. By seeming chance, Simon bumps into an old, awkward schoolmate named Gordo (writer/director Joel Edgerton). What begins as an awkward encounter grows into more contact. Simon finds Gordo intrusive and Robin is a bit more understanding. But tensions arise, especially over a past that Simon and Gordo share, but hide from Robin. Things get more intense as questions come up. What is this secret past? Is Gordo creepy or simply misunderstood?
For the first 2/3 of the movie, this works very well because our main character is Robin. She is in essentially every seen and we see the events of the movie play out through her eyes. When knowledge is withheld from her, it withheld from the audience as well. We identify with her and want to know what she doesn't. She is also incredibly kind without being naive. Hall is very good in this understated performance. In fact the entire cast is excellent. Edgerton particularly deserves a lot of credit by making Gordo a blank slate onto which you can project either your hopes or your fears.
But the movie has 2 fundamental problems and they are both things that should have been resolved at these script level.
First, the last 3rd of the movie shifts focus away from Robin and onto Simon. We begin to see the movie through his eyes and not hers. There is a narrative reason for this, but it doesn't feel right. After following her journey for most of the movie, we then have to let her character get into the passenger seat and we have to let the very unlikeable Simon take the wheel. This is also especially annoying because Robin gets demoted from hero of the story to pawn in the Simon/Gordo conflict.
Second has to do with catharsis. I think Edgerton wanted to avoid cliches as much as possible and attempted to let the drama exist more internally than externally. But this is a pretty big let down. I understand why he chose to do things this way, but the first act only works so well because you feel like it is building to something big. The resolution of the story makes sense, but it feels much less like a satisfying conclusion than a missed opportunity.
But Edgerton's directing is very subtle and moody. I especially love the way he used the red tail light of a car to fill a scene with menace. He is also very sparing with music and lets the story unfold with its own tension in the first act. But again, the resolution is where he fails to deliver. Still, I see a lot of potential here.
The film does raise some interesting thematic questions. Do people really ever change? And if they do, can they change for the better or worse? There is also a twistedly Catholic idea of Providence in this film. The title refers to a line that Gordo says, where he tells Robin and Simon that the worst things that happen to you in life are gifts if they make you a better person. The movie actually tries to work this idea into the overall narrative, but you will have to be the judge of whether or not Edgerton was successful.
Overall The Gift has some promise and shows some skill in directing and acting. But it never becomes anything more.
3 out of 5 stars.