Joel Edgerton has a knack for making malice look lovable, as he demonstrates as the head of a crime family in Davis Michod's "Animal Kingdom" (2010) and as the leader of the SEAL team in Kathryn Bigelow's "Zero Dark Thirty" (2013). He wisely takes a similar role for himself in his debut feature, the psychological thriller, "The Gift." Such casting is one of many good choices he makes in this expertly crafted exercise in guilt, ambiguity and revenge.
As Gordo, he shrinks into a character who looks like he wants to hide inside his own body, the kind of guy you vaguely recognize from high school when he sheepishly accosts you in a public place, as he does Simon (Jason Bateman) and his wife, Robyn (Rebecca Hall, at her best). They have just moved into a new house in Los Angeles, not far from where Simon grew up.
Reluctantly, Simon takes Gordo's number, promising to get in touch — with no intention of doing so. But when the first gift arrives, it looks like this is one decision Simon doesn't get to make.
Every character in a movie has a history, and it's a narrative art choosing how much and in what way it is revealed. Since this is a film about the past, such exposition is key, and Edgerton accomplishes it sleekly. He has Robyn's point of view dominate, since like the audience she doesn't know about Simon and Gordo's past. As her sympathies and suspicions shift, so do the viewer's. In addition to directing outstanding performances, Edgerton also suggests psychological processes by means of space, architecture, and décor, exploiting the walls, doorways, windows, and mirrors of the new house to indicate the status of a relationship or self-image.
If "The Gift" can be faulted, it might be that it is too neatly wrapped. Not in terms of resolutions — it remains admirably ambiguous — but in its generic precision. It is also frankly derivative, but Edgerton steals from the best, like his "Zero" director Bigelow. He alludes to one of the most disturbing sequences in her "Strange Days" (1995), presenting a film within the film that tells more than a character wants to know, and not enough.
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Peter Keough can be reached at email@example.com.