It's a pleasure to be reminded every once in a while that people can surprise you. Just three years ago, the Australian actor Joel Edgerton starred in The Odd Life of Timothy Green, a Disney picture about a childless couple who magically grow a son in their backyard garden. It was the most terrible film of the year — maybe of the new millennium. To say I wrote him off would be an understatement.
But, out of the blue, look who's written, directed and starred in one of the most intelligent and genre-bending thrillers in ages. I guess Edgerton was pacing himself. It's nearly impossible to believe this is the same guy. Insert pod-person joke here.
What a marvelous movie. The Gift wastes zero time on expository dilly-dallying. It gets right down to business. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have moved from Chicago into a gleaming modern house in the Hollywood Hills, near where Simon grew up. One day while shopping in a home-goods store, the couple is approached by a weird-looking dude who claims to have gone to high school with Simon.
The man introduces himself as Gordo (Edgerton). Simon claims he can't quite place him but introduces Gordo to his wife and promises to give him a call. Hard to imagine how one could forget a guy with such strange eyes and hair the orange of a shag rug.
The next thing the couple knows, increasingly extravagant presents start appearing on their front porch. First there's a bottle of wine with a welcome note from Gordo. Then their empty koi pond is mysteriously filled with water and stocked with exotic fish.
Oh, and then there are the unexpected pop-ins. Gordo has a way of showing up when Simon's at work and innocently asking Robyn whether he's home. Somehow he always winds up being invited in for tea. And somehow we get the sense he's got sinister designs on her.
That's what makes The Gift such a treat. About halfway through the film, we learn something neither we nor Robyn suspected about Simon, and we suddenly realize he's the one Gordo has plans for. For very good reasons indeed — though movie-critic law forbids my even hinting at them.
Tensions escalate. Bit by bit, Simon reveals his true self. (OK, one hint: He's not the kind of lovable yuppie Bateman usually plays.) The family dog disappears. Faucets are found running inexplicably. Robyn thinks she sees a figure through her fogged shower door. Simon warns Gordo to stay away.
By this point, Robyn isn't entirely sure which of the men in her life is the bad guy. Even when stuff hits the fan, and the audience knows Gordo is responsible, we aren't sure which is actually the bad guy, either. Sometimes revenge isn't merely sweet. It's warranted.
This is a psychological thriller that reflects a genuine grasp of human psychology. That's uncommon. It's what made Hitchcock Hitchcock. It's what makes The Gift one of the extremely rare films that deserve to be described as "Hitchcockian."
"You are done with the past," Gordo advises Simon as his perfect life slips through his fingers. "But the past is not done with you." What pure moviegoing joy it is to watch expectation after expectation being upended as Edgerton toys with the tropes of the genre, piling third-act twist upon twist. Everyone in the cast is first-rate, but the filmmaker is a revelation. It may be the last thing I once thought I'd ever say, but I'm still saying it: You know what would be an understatement? Calling Joel Edgerton gifted.