“The performances here are unanimously strong”
The only more underserved genre for moviegoers besides serious adult comedies/dramas or immersing fantasies are the classic thriller. The last truly marvelous, slick thriller that graced multiplexes nationwide was Prisoners, an unnerving mystery revolving around the kidnapping of two young girls, with one father going to desperate lengths to find them. Since then, marginally passable films like “No Good Deed” have stumbled into theaters but never left the kind of imprint on audiences that has them genuinely consumed with fear and uncertainty thanks to the slickness of a film.
Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut The Gift is the first thriller that will leave an imprint on its viewers in a long time for more reasons than its rich cinematography and expertly paced narrative. It’s the kind of film that gets one to look introspectively at the wrongs they’ve committed, in this case, in school, where perhaps a rumor you helped spread, or even started, went on to scar the victim for life. Perhaps if you helped spread said rumor, you’ve moved on, but what if the person you hurt hasn’t forgotten the pain and torment your little white lie caused?
The Gift examines the idea of an unburied hatchet by focusing on the young married couple of Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall). They’ve just moved into a beautiful, spacious home, with Simon finding tremendous success with the company he works for and Robyn coming to terms with her anxiety and her addiction to prescription medication. Hoping to start life a new, they are thrown for a loop when they meet a man named Gordon (nicknamed “Gordo,” played by Edgerton) at a home-appliance store. Gordo is an old classmate of Simon, who barely recognizes him, yet still, upon even a brief conversation, recalls he’s still four tires short of a car.
Gordo repeatedly makes kind, yet invasive gestures towards Simon and Robyn, delivering wine, bringing fishes to fill their small pond out front, and stopping by while Robyn is home alone to keep her company. While Robyn sees a sensitive, somewhat lost soul in Gordo, Simon sees nothing but a creep – a persistent creep that has something to prove or uncover about him that Simon doesn’t want revealed. Eventually, when Gordo’s actions turn particularly personal and an apology on his part is warranted, Simon and Robyn receive a letter asking for “bygones to be bygones” for something that occurred in the past, to which only Robyn is left clueless.
The performances here are unanimously strong, particularly from Bateman, who gives one of his only very serious roles to date here. Bateman even delivers a powerful monologue before his costar, Hall, who also does some good work as a troubled woman simply wanting peace of mind, concerning the “winners and losers” of America and how people are only held back by personal insecurities and events of the past because they choose to be. His delivery and conviction here is very strong, as he deadlocks his eyes into Hall and digs into her, himself, and everything that occurred in the past in one great scene.
Edgerton, however, has the real challenging role – playing a guy who can look sweet and nimble, almost neighborly, but also a bit off and maybe even a little unstable. Edgerton’s blank facial expressions find ways to be amiable, despite his behavior being increasingly troubling, almost too kind, and the character he creates for himself is one you struggle to find exactly what’s bad about him when “too nice” doesn’t seem to cut it.
Yet Edgerton’s craft here is something to really marvel at. Serving as the writer, director, and co-producer, The Gift is essentially his playground and, in turn, he creates a thrilling funhouse of Hitchcockian principles and truly absorbing fear. Drenched in dingy, saturated cinematography, casting a moody light on nearly every scene, The Gift‘s atmosphere (thanks to cinematographer Eduard Grau) is a richly detailed one. The eeriness is very even and understated, and the fright aspect sneaks up on you like the potentially deeper meaning of a kind neighbor’s gesture. This is a beautiful film in terms of its look and feel, constantly feeling like it’s toying with your emotions.
Finally, there’s the narrative structure, which is very unlike Hollywood. Unlike more conventional thrillers, like No Good Deed, The Gift doesn’t really have that incredulous, explosive moment, where everything you thought wouldn’t happen does and the plausibility gets sacrificed for theatrics. Sure, there are some great twists, including one that goes further than I ever expected this film to go, but never is there that one moment where every ostensibly implausible thing occurs that effectively derails the entire project in terms of tone and pacing. The Gift remains consistent in creating a feeling of dread, even when the tables turn and the protagonist and antagonist lines are blurred.
At the end of the day, however, Edgerton is the real star here. Proving himself a competent do-all man and not just a gimmicky actor-turned-director, he molds The Gift to his liking and asserts himself not only as a strong lover of thrillers and Hitchcockian principles but an actor who can also say, “sit back and watch” when he goes to do something and actually do it correctly.