2015, R, 108 mins.
2015, R, 108 mins.
Jason Bateman as Simon / Rebecca Hall as Robyn / Joel Edgerton as Gordo / David Denman as Greg / Beau Knapp as Detective Walker / Allison Tolman as Lucy / P. J. Byrne as Danny / Busy Philipps as Duffy / Wendell Pierce as Detective Mills / Katie Aselton as Joan
Written and directed by Joel Edgerton
As an actor, Joel Edgerton has given one quietly understated and authoritative performance after another, bringing a level of nuanced confidence in films like ZERO DARK THIRTY, WARRIOR and ANIMAL KINGDOM. He’s also a remarkably shrewd screenwriter, and his work on 2010’s masterful psychological thriller THE SQUARE was testament to that.
Now, Edgerton is trying his hand at directing within the thriller
genre with THE
and the results are surprisingly effective. The film has been advertised as a fairly routine mad stalker
thriller, but beneath that superficial surface lurks something more
subversive, sinister, and creatively compelling.
Edgerton manages to deftly maneuver between playing within audience
expectations of the genre and completely and wickedly subverting them at
the same time. Nothing is
ever as it seems in this film, which is reflected in Edgerton’s (whom
also stars in and wrote the film) atmospheric direction and dread inducing
The film starts
off modestly and patiently, never really tipping off the kind of macabre
twists and turns that the story takes later on.
It also could be argued that THE GIFT has, at face value, a
paint-by-numbers premise that reeks of overt familiarity.
This is true, but it’s how Edgerton takes these very formulas and
then radically contorts them for his own fiendish needs that sets the film
Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have recently
located to Southern California from Chicago after Simon takes a new job
(with lucrative room for upward growth), which the couple hopes will help
rekindled their marriage and life together.
They’re rather well off, if their lavish and modern new home is
any indication, but their overall enjoyment of their new surroundings is
thrown for a loop with the appearance of “Gordo” (Edgerton) during a
chance meeting at a retail store. Initially, something seems definitely off about Gordo, to
both Simon and, in many respects, the audience as well. He seems affable enough, but maintains a socially awkward
vibe that comes off as off-putting. Simon
can’t quite remember who Gordo is…that is until he tells him that they
were former high school classmates.
They part their
separate ways, but a few days later a gift from Gordo mysteriously shows
up and Simon and Robyn’s home, which Robyn appreciates, but leaves Simon
feeling ambivalent (after all, how did Gordo know where they live?).
As days pass Gordo begins to make impromptu personal visits to the
couple at their home, which culminates in a small dinner gathering, during
which time Simon and Robyn try to size up this oddball man, but fail to
put all the pieces together of what makes him tick.
Nevertheless, Robyn sees Gordo as strange, but relatively harmless.
Contrastingly, Simon slowly begins to sense that Gordo is a clingy,
mentally disturbed, and potentially dangerous soul that could do harm to
his marriage. Predictably,
Robyn and Simon grow increasingly at odds over Gordo’s true motives with
his frequent visits (and his frequently left gifts at their doorstep), but
when details of Simon’s past with the man begin to rise to the surface
it creates a whole new unexpected emotional struggle and conflict between
everyone that boils over in increasingly hostile and unhealthy ways.
overall narrative goes down many preordained paths, to be sure, but the
shrewd manner that Edgerton lets his screenplay methodically unfold into
one unexpected reveal after another is what ultimately makes the film so
darkly and hypnotically intense. Edgerton, in terms of how he writes and performs Gordo, is
chillingly calculating for how he never truly leaves all of the
character’s cards on the table. Is
Gordo really a creepy stalker with a bone to pick with Simon, or is he
just a lonely and introverted soul looking to reacquaint himself with past school
chums? Is he an emotionally
troubled, but pure hearted man with noble aims or is he a degenerate
sociopath with more on his mind that seeking out an innocent relationship
with Simon and Robyn? THE
GIFT becomes more alluring and gripping in how it ensnares viewers into
the overall conundrum that is this character.
Thankfully, the film never answers these troubling questions
outright, which leads to a sense of discovery for the audience alongside
the other characters.
Simon also becomes a character whose own motives – and past ties with
Gordo – become progressively murkier and hard to decipher as the film
progresses. There’s the
notion that Simon, in all of his revelations to his wife about past high
school times with Gordo, may or may not be a reliable source of truthful
information, leaving THE GIFT compulsively mysterious on multiple levels.
As those two character arcs are explored, Edgerton’s script then
tackles some larger ideas – at least as far as typical genre thrillers
like this go – about the whole nature of upper class, elitist
entitlement and how one can justify a present life of privilege and wealth
after a past of questionably moral indiscretions.
Edgerton, more than perhaps other directors working within genre
troupes, seems more compelled at diving into the whole thorny nature of
what constitutes an ideal and happy family unit and how insecurity and
apprehension over those we are unfamiliar with can serve as a damaging
influence to future happiness. THE
GIFT is progressively more idea and thematically centered than I was
frankly expecting going in.
Edgerton is also
a natural director of remarkable instincts, and in THE GIFT he thoroughly
evokes – through lighting, static compositions, architectural designs,
and how characters interact within the frame – an unending sense of
ominous dread and anxiety. The
new home for the couple almost becomes a secondary character in the film
for the ways it serves as a conduit for all of these people to interact in
progressively more inhospitable ways.
The production design not only casts a shadow over viewers as to
the affluence of Simon, but it also becomes a claustrophobic harbinger of
impeding doom for everyone involved.
That, and Edgerton uses silence better than any recent film I’ve
screened: In a relative age when thrillers are typified by numbing action
and repetitive violence, THE GIFT refreshingly places more prominence on
nerve-janglingly mood and fear-inducing atmosphere...and an overwhelming
sensation of the unknown.
THE GIFT also
firmly cements Jason Bateman as one of the most criminally underrated
actors of his generation, and he gives arguably ones of the most thankless
performances in one of the trickiest roles of 2015 (it’s kind of
miraculous that he manages to convey open armed congeniality and
condescending smugness at the same time).
Rebecca Hall has a tough acting challenge as well in the sense that
she plays a woman that’s kind and sympathetic while being paranoid and
deeply distrusting of all the men in her life.
And, as mentioned, Edgerton’s innate impulses for not
telegraphing Gordo’s true motives throughout THE GIFT is perhaps the
finest gift he bestows upon his production.
Gordo is neither a scary individual, nor is he an innocent babe in
the woods here. The fact that
the film keeps us all on the tip of our toes, forcing us to use deductive
reason to figure Gordo out is its strongest merit.
I think, though,
that THE GIFT somewhat writes itself into a corner as the final act rolls
in, and you can sense Edgerton struggling with a conclusion that both
makes logical sense and seems shocking at the same time.
There are also some subplots here and there that are developed, but
then ignored (like Robyn’s past drug addiction) to the point of being
distracting. Yet, THE GIFT
adeptly balances nail-biting terror and soulful tragedy in equal
measure…and better than most other thrillers made by veteran directors.
It’s a thriller that positively torments viewers in the most
squirm-inducing ways, and as far as rookie filmmakers go, Edgerton has
crafted sometime shockingly good here.