Directed by: Joel Edgerton.
Written by: Joel Edgerton.
Starring: Jason Bateman (Simon), Rebecca Hall (Robyn), Joel Edgerton (Gordo), Allison Tolman (Lucy), Tim Griffin (Kevin 'KK' Keelor), Busy Philipps (Duffy), Adam Lazarre-White (Ron), Beau Knapp (Detective Walker), Wendell Pierce (Detective Mills).
The Gift film has been marketed as a horror movie about a nice couple being stalked by a creepy guy – and while that’s not exactly untrue, it’s not really what the film is about either. Yes, the couple at the heart of the movie is seemingly perfect that only goes to shit when an interloper enters their life, the movie gradually reveals that not to be the case. The movie has its share of jump scares to be sure – and it is genuinely unsettling. But the scariest thing about The Gift is not so much the interloper into the marriage – but the gradual discovery within the marriage of just who you are married to. That is what makes the movie as good as it is – and what makes the final scenes in the movie completely unnecessary – even if they are still effective.
The story is about Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall), who have moved to California – where Simon was originally from – from Chicago. They tell everyone it’s because Simon got a great new job – which is true, but there were some things that happened in Chicago that they would also like to get away from – which will be revealed throughout the movie. They are not back for long, when they bump into Gordo (Joel Edgerton) – who says he went to high school with Simon – who says he barely remembers Gordo. Gordo is awkward in social situations, doesn’t take hints very well, and seems more than little strange. Simon wants to get rid of Gordo almost immediately – but Robyn feels sorry for him. She can be a little shy, quiet and awkward herself – and thinks Gordo perhaps needs a friend. Yet it is also true that he really is weird – so when things finally come to a head, she starts to expect to see him show up in their home at any point – and starts to backslide into some of old problems. At the same time, she starts to find some things out about her husband’s past.
The film was written and directed by Joel Edgerton, making his debut, and it’s a strong one. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise – after all, he was part of the group that includes his brother Nash and David Michod, in Australia who have made a bunch of shorts, and eventually features together (like Nash’s under seen The Square and Michod’s excellent Animal Kingdom). As a director, Joel Edgerton isn’t afraid to fall back on some classic thriller tropes – the sudden appearance of the bad guy as if out of nowhere, people snapping awake from dreams that the audience momentarily thought were real, shots from a distance that give the audience the sense that we are eavesdropping on the characters – and perhaps someone else is as well. Edgerton makes great use of the house Simon and Robyn live in – a secluded place up in the hills, with a lot of windows. All of these are admittedly clichés – but they became that for a reason – they’re effective.
The performances are even better. Edgerton can be a physically intimidating actor when he wants to be – but here, he makes himself seem smaller, and weaker to play Gordo. He’s undeniably creepy, but Edgerton does a great job of not letting the audience quite figure out if he’s that way because he’s planning something evil, or if he really just is socially awkward and has no ability to take a hint – a guessing game Edgerton keeps up until the final moments. Hall has her best role in a while as Robyn, the wife who is just trying to figure out what the hell is going on. In many ways, she is the classic thriller wife in the vein of Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight or Joan Fontaine in Alfred Hitchcock’s Suspicion (two Oscar winning roles, and no Hall is Oscar good – but she is excellent). She, and the audience, doesn’t know if she’s crazy – or everyone around her is. Best of all may just be Bateman – who I don’t think has ever made a role better suited to his skillset as Simon. Since making his comeback with Arrested Development, Bateman has specialized in playing put upon, exasperated good guys – yet there’s always been something of a dick about his characters as well. Bateman tried to play off that in his own directorial debut – Bad Words – with not very good results, but here he gets it just right. He is charming and funny – likable – in The Gift, but all of that is covering up something deeper and darker – and Bateman has never been better than he is here.
The one major flaw with The Gift is the ending – which goes on a few scenes longer than is really necessary. Edgerton wants to give the audience a final jolt – resolve all of their questions, and have them leave the theater talking about the ending. For many the ending will probably work. For me though, it was completely unnecessary – the end would have been appropriately disturbing, and more effective, had the movie simply jettisoned the final twist, which adds one layer too many for my tastes. Still, however, The Gift works remarkably well – and is a fine debut behind the camera for Edgerton – and a genuinely effective thriller.