The Gift—a compact picture written and directed by the Australian actor Joel Edgerton—is the best American thriller in 20 years or more. On its own limited terms, The Gift is an almost perfect piece of work; in an extraordinarily controlled debut behind the camera, Edgerton doesn’t make a false move. And The Gift benefits from an almost infinitely shaded leading performance by the longtime sitcom star and light movie comedy breakout Jason Bateman, who clearly understood he had the kind of role here that could redefine his career and simply knocked it out of the park.
Bateman plays Simon Cullum, a corporate suit who has moved from Chicago to Los Angeles with his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) for a new job that might eventually make him a billionaire. He’s slick and she’s unsteady, having had a miscarriage the previous year that led to some kind of nervous breakdown that involved pills and alcohol. At Williams-Sonoma, they run into Gordo (played by Edgerton himself), an odd high-school classmate of Simon whom Simon does not remember.
Gordo begins showing up at their new home in the Hollywood Hills bearing gifts of welcome. He’s awkward, and Robin is awkward, and she feels sorry for him and grateful to him and somehow haunted by him. But quickly Gordo’s attention begins to seem stalkerish, and Simon decides Gordo must be banished from their lives.
Whereas in many movies what I’ve just summarized would constitute 90 percent of the plot, The Gift is only just getting started. It does what every great thriller does, which is to create a jangly and unsettled atmosphere, startle the bejesus out of you every few minutes, and consistently surprise you by taking the story to places you didn’t expect. I’m very good at guessing thriller twists, but The Gift completely took me by surprise three or four times.
Go see it as soon as you can, because while it is a modest hit—it’s already made $30 million against its minuscule $5 million budget—it won’t last much longer in theaters. And this one really deserves to be seen in a big dark auditorium. As the lights came up and the credits rolled, I got to wondering just why it was The Gift seemed so unusual an offering these days. After all, the thriller genre has been a reliable cinematic staple from the earliest days of the talkies. And it was the bread and butter of Alfred Hitchcock, who made himself the most famous director in movie history over his six-decade career until Steven Spielberg took the title from him. Hitchcock died in 1980, but the thriller did not die with him; far from it.
It practically took over Hollywood in the late 1980s and early 1990s as a succession of gigantic smashes from Jagged Edge to Fatal Attraction to Basic Instinct to Sleeping with the Enemy, and culminated in an Oscar for 1991’s The Silence of the Lambs (the first thriller since Hitchcock’s Rebecca in 1940 to win Best Picture).
These movies spawned a million cheap imitations that flooded the world’s video stores (remember video stores?), mostly with titles that included the word “instinct” or the word “attraction.” Fourth-rank ex-kid actors made second careers starring in them (remember C. Thomas Howell? or Nicole Eggert?). The knockoffs then began dominating the fare offered by cable channels late at night (remember Skinemax?). Once the primary form of nerve-jangling entertainment for adults, the thriller became an onanistic diversion for teenagers. And so the genre went cold.
The takeover of the multiplex by those same teenagers left very little room for the thriller, which relies for its power on specifically adult anxieties—fears that a spouse isn’t what he or she seems, fears that something will happen to a beloved child, and, overarching it all, the fear of losing one’s mind. Instead, those very real and very human fears were completely pushed aside cinematically by the fear of the supernatural. After the colossal box-office triumphs of Scream in 1996 (it cost $15 million and earned $173 million) and The Blair Witch Project in 1999 (an astounding $250 million on a $500,000 budget), most movie studios created production lines solely for the purpose of generating cheap horror pics that would create a steady annual revenue stream. That’s why there have been six Paranormal Activitys, several Insidiouses and a whole bunch of other franchises whose names I can’t remember (remember how easy it used to be to remember things?).