Marking the feature-film directing debut of actor Joel Edgerton (“Zero Dark Thirty,” “Warrior”), “The Gift” is a brilliantly bleak chiller, a horror film that simultaneously feels like it could go almost anywhere while still ending in a way that feels utterly ordained by everything that’s gone before. It’s a grim bit of business, but it’s also loaded with the kind of laughter that you need when you’re scared, like the vent on a pressure cooker.
The story revolves around just three people, but it draws their world around them with exquisite detail and then as tight as a noose. Most thrillers are about the outsider, the stranger, the threat; “The Gift” stands above those head and shoulders because it also asks deceptively simple questions: How well do you know anybody in your life? How well do you know yourself?
The film begins with all-too-perfect married couple Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) moving to L.A. from Chicago for his new job; he’s from L.A., she isn’t. And at the mall, a man hesitates at the sight of Simon, stutters, and then draws back: “I think I know you …” It turns out the mall stranger is Gordon (Edgerton), who Simon knew way back in school. “We should hang out,” Simon notes politely, not expecting Gordon to be too intent on follow-up, but Gordon is; Gordon, it turns out, is pretty intent on a lot of things.
It’s hard to set a thriller in L.A. after all these years and movies; in most films, the streets and buildings themselves feel spent, exhausted, as if everything bad that could have happened already has. But “The Gift” is aware of our cinematic relationship with L.A., making nods to everything from Manson to Polanski, and warping those clichés as we notice it evoking them. It doesn’t take place on the mean streets; it unfolds high in the Hollywood Hills, mostly, where the houses are beautiful and quiet and just far enough apart that you couldn’t hear it if that quiet was broken by a scream. Gordon keeps dropping by; Robyn, alone and lonely, keeps inviting him in out of simple politeness. Simon finds Gordon’s ubiquity creepy — and Robyn will eventually discover why.
Anyone can find chills in a Dickensian crypt; doing so in a mid-century modern with beautiful windows is another matter. Edgerton does exactly that here, showing what happens when the characters go outside of the bounds of politeness and into the darker places outside it. As you would hope for any film where things go bump in the night, the sound editing and mixing are both superb (Julian Slater is credited with both), not just because of the film’s shrieking scares but more so due to its uncomfortable silences. Simon, it turns out, was a bit of a bully as a kid; worse, he may be one now. And his marriage isn’t as happy as we first think, of course.
Kudos to Edgerton, then, for not only writing the script but also directing and starring as Gordon; Gordon used to be called “Gordo the weirdo,” (a phrase Bateman puts plenty of cruel English on) and we get a glimpse of that in Gordon’s present-tense social awkwardness and mumbled friendly entreaties that, over time, get less and less friendly.
Bateman’s Simon shows a lot of the zest and bitter spice the actor brought to the overlooked “Bad Words,” often saying things like “Can’t we have a nice time?” and “The subject is closed,” and similar orders disguised as requests. Hall is also superb — after being wasted in big-budget films like “Transcendence” and “Iron Man III,” she has a film here worthy of her talents, and she uses those talents to make Robyn an actual person, neither a third-act savior nor a cowering victim.
Thanks to Edgerton and editor Luke Doolan,”The Gift” has the pace of a bad dream, moving faster and faster with a dark gravity that builds until that horrible point when you’d hope to wake up. There’s not an ounce of fat here, and Edgerton also casts great actors in every role, occasionally for a single one-and-done scene, like Katie Aselton (“The League”) and P. J. Byrne (“The Wolf of Wall Street”).
Nothing here feels cheap or hasty, which is why the horror, when it comes, is all the more chilling and grim. Slick, sharp and legitimately terrifying, “The Gift” is a truly brilliant thriller — and, one hopes, the first of many features from Edgerton to come.