If every cloud has a silver lining then the dark, stormy skies which rage over actor Joel Edgerton’s disturbing directorial debut should yield a small fortune in precious metal.
On the surface, The Gift harks back to 1990s psychological thrillers such as The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, which planted a murderous cuckoo in the nest of a picture-perfect American family.
Here, it’s a socially awkward former classmate who worms his ways into the lives of an upwardly mobile couple and unsettles the lovebirds with impromptu acts of kindness.
Once the cogs of Edgerton’s genre-bound narrative click into place, we discover the conventional moral boundaries between interloper and victims have been deliciously blurred.
Our sympathies see-saw between the quietly menacing antagonist and his targets, jolting violently in one direction in the closing minutes with a surprising final flourish that sends a trickle of cold sweat down the spine.
On more than one occasion, Edgerton tees up an act of bloodthirsty retribution that would have been par for the course in the 1990s and then defies our expectations at the last second.
The threat of violence hangs in the air but rarely manifests on screen.
Simon Callem (Jason Bateman) and his emotionally brittle wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move back to his hometown of Los Angeles, where he is eyeing a major promotion at a computer security firm.
During a shopping trip for furnishings, the Callems cross paths with Simon’s old school chum Gordon Mosley (Edgerton), who still lives in the area.
“That was awkward,” jokes Robyn as they leave the store.
The following day, the Callems find a bottle of wine from Gordon on their doorstep, and Simon reveals the loner’s nickname at school was Gordo the weirdo.
“Kids are mean,” laments Robyn. “Kids are honest,” coldly retorts Simon.
In the days that follow, Gordon arrives unannounced at the house while Simon is at work and forges an uneasy bond with Robyn, who grows concerned about an unspoken incident involving the two men when they both attended high school.
“The bad things, they can be a gift. That’s how I like to see things,” professes Gordon.
Robyn enlists the help of friendly neighbour Lucy (Allison Tolman) to uncover the truth.
The Gift has fun toying with conventions of the genre, without straying too far from creepily familiar territory.
Edgerton sustains dramatic momentum as his script uncoils, eliciting strong performances from Hall and Bateman, the latter playing effectively against type as his character chokes on an ice cold dish of revenge.
The writer-director inhabits the film’s plum role with cool detachment, lacing throwaway lines with a hint of malevolence to suggest that something wicked lurks behind his seemingly benign facade.
When the mask drops, we’re unnerved to glimpse what lies beneath.