The Gift, wr/dir. Joel Edgerton, st. Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton
Like most home invaders, Edgerton's "Gordo the Weirdo" needs only exploit the fissures and instabilities that already lie dormant in his victims. And indeed there's much in his directorial debut's antagonist that evokes De Niro's Max Cady from Scorsese's 1991 remake of J. Lee Thompson's Cape Fear - if not in stature and sheer capacity for brutality, then certainly in an astute knowledge of how and where to apply the requisite pressure. The Gift also arrives on UK shores in an eerily timely manner as a recent newspaper article paints British children as among the unhappiest in the world due to bullying. This film is notable in that rather than depict real-time playground harassment, wherein culpability is tempered by watching inexperienced adolescents doing foolishly adolescent things, we see how the tendrils of bygone actions long forgotten - or not - reach well into adulthood, where grownups feel a genuine right to slate-wiping. History, as we learn, is not so easily re-written.
And so we open with what appears to be a picture-perfect representation of a couple brimming with ambition and purpose. Relocating from Chicago to an LA suburb, Simon (Bateman) and Robyn Callen (Hall) find a beautiful home for themselves, their dog, and possibly the hope of another child after their first was miscarried. Already movie lore tells us from the off that this is a fragility is at its most delicate stage. Out sourcing furnishings one day, they bump into Gordon Mosley, an old school-friend of Simon's. Gordon is shy, inelegant at social graces, possibly on the spectrum, while Simon is functionally courteous in the way we all might uncomfortably recognise in ourselves. But as Gordon insinuates himself into the couple's life over the proceeding days, it's hard to tell if Simon's displeasure at Gordo's continued presence is justified, or if maybe he's anxious at a past that may yet be revealed.
Edgerton's Gordo is one of those rare and compelling characters of modern cinema, simultaneously victim and aggressor, and performed with tremendous, unfussy creepiness by the writer/director. We get drip-fed breadcrumbs of a past narrative for Gordon, but Edgerton is canny in what information he chooses to give out. Bateman similarly portrays a brilliantly and maddeningly incomplete character in Simon. Motivation in either case is rarely as clear-cut as it seems. The only one who's truly lost in this knot of slippery untruths is Simon's wife Robyn, fighting the urge to suspect her husband may not be the rock she's built her life around, and uncertain at the veracity of Gordo's intentions. The knowledge and acceptance of past misdemeanours can be a gift, Gordo tells the couple, but what's fascinating here is the difference between going down that path of self-discovery yourself, and having such a trial thrust upon you. It's also not entirely dissimilar from the bible-bashing Cady telling Sam Bowden that he's "going to learn about loss". Both Cady and Gordo see themselves as avenging angels, of sorts, meting out punishment to those unworthy of their present-day status and all the benefits such a position affords them.
But besides divine retribution, The Gift is also about trust - nominally, the trust we place in those who we allow to share our lives with. The recent hack at the affair-promoting Ashley Madison servers is a punctual reminder that we live in times of great duplicity, and that mistrust can grow, cancer-like, threatening to destabilise the things we've spent our lives building. Aside from the occasional and rather redundant jump-scare, Edgerton has fashioned a truly contemporary horror film - one that needs no mythical or supernatural force to work its way under our skin, but merely the existence of a careless action that refuses to remain buried.