Remember the 1990s? Anyone reading the print edition of encore certainly remebers the era. Those reading online might only remember the ‘90s as the span of time between escaping the birth canal and elementary school.
The ‘90s were an awesome time for pop culture. Madonna was culturally relevant and putting out sex books. Nirvana emerged from Seattle and strangled Mötley Crüe to death with their own over-managed hair. Quentin Tarantino and Spike Lee donkey-punched independent cinema and brought about a new age of gritty American movies. Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David perfected the sitcom. It was a golden age for just about everything … except studio movies. Studio movies were equivalent to Lifetime Movies of the Week, only with more recognizable talent.
Around that time, it seemed Hollywood was contractually obligated to put out movies about suburban terror. They were films based around the idea that someone’s perfect little life was mere minutes away from being derailed by an obsessed friend/neighbor/co-worker/nanny. There was great garbage released, like “Pacific Heights,” “Single White Female,” “The Temp,” and “The Crush.” These films engineered a fear that would ensure audiences never cheated on their significant others or invited an old friend over for a cup of coffee.
“The Gift” is a great throwback to an era of movies that seems to no longer exist. It’s a terrific, perfectly put-together, suburban nightmare from actor/writer/director/craft service provider Joel Edgerton. As with all suburban terror movies, the film starts out with a perfect young couple and their awesome new house. Simon (Jason Bateman) is a charismatic up-and-coming tech sector executive. His comely wife, Robyn (Rebecca Hall), is a doe-eyed ingénue who is trying to help shape the perfect life Simon is trying to provide. They buy a house that is 80-percent glass and could have only been built by an architect obsessed with voyeurism.
One day they run into Gordo (Joel Edgerton), an old high-school acquaintance who tries to reconnect with Simon. The awkward exchange leads to an awkward dinner where Gordo gushes over Simon and his popular past. Things haven’t worked out so well for old Gordo, who has stumbled through a series of failures after being discharged from the military. It’s easy to see how someone like Gordo could become envious of Simon, and his nice house and gorgeous wife. Of course, it’s not at all as perfect as it seems. Robyn is a recovering pill addict and dealing with the aftermath of a pretty serious breakdown. Simon is trying to hold it all together, but he has a closet full of demons to contain. Gordo takes a shining to Robyn and begins to stop by at inopportune moments to talk. He seems well-intentioned, albeit socially awkward. There’s an affection for Robyn, but it seems harmless.
Simon, like any other red-blooded man with an aggression issue, doesn’t care for Gordo’s pop-ins and decides it’s time to stop. After confronting Gordo, Simon and Robyn begin to fall victim to some strange happenings. It’s the kind of stuff right out of the suburban terror playbook: The fish in their koi pond die. Then their dog, Mr. Bojangles, goes missing. Robyn feels like she’s being watched—and in their all-glass pervert’s paradise, how could she not?
“The Gift” is so wonderfully manipulative. The plot is obvious and the scares are telegraphed with the subtlety of a tack hammer to the genitals. Still, it’s all so entertaining. There were moments the audience screamed and followed with uproarious laughter. I can’t remember the last movie I went to where the audience was being plucked like a finely tuned fiddle.
The movie is elevated above the other films in this genre by a fantastic third act that piles on a whole lot of twists. All of the characters have a secondary layer. While none achieve a third dimension, they still end up being far more nuanced than most in this high-polished “movie of the week” nonsense.
There’s also some added fun of the supporting cast, which is chockful of recognizable faces from around the pop-culture universe. The next door neighbor is Allison Tollman from “Fargo.” The catty wife of a co-worker is Busy Philipps from “One Tree Hill.” An old high-school friend of Simon is Pam’s boyfriend from “The Office.” (Here’s a great tip for anyone trying to make a fun little thriller: Stock the pond with recognizable faces. It makes those by-the-numbers scenes far more bearable for the audience.)
“The Gift” feels like a throwback to a simpler, more terrible era of ‘90s cinema. The suburban nightmare might not be an oft-visited genre in the 21st century, but I give props to Joel Edgerton for crafting a fun piece of nostalgia with some solid twists and turns.