Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Joel Edgerton
Stars: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Allison Tollman, Tim Griffin, Beau Knapp, Wendell Pierce, Mirrah Foulkes, Nash Edgerton, David Denman.
Joel Edgerton has proven himself a talented writer of dark thrillers full of tension and suspense, having written the scripts for the thriller The Square and more recently the morally ambiguous Felony. Now Edgerton makes an impressive directorial debut with the unsettling and increasingly creepy psychological thriller The Gift, which he also wrote. His script contains a darker edge that adds bite to the material.
The film opens with Simon (Jason Bateman) and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall, from Transcendence, The Town, etc) having just moved to Los Angeles. Simon has come for his work with a large security firm. Robyn is still grieving over a recent miscarriage and is still emotionally vulnerable and fragile. The pair are shopping in a furniture store when Simon is approached by a stranger (played by Edgerton himself), who introduces himself as Gordo and says that he used to go to school with Simon. For his part, Simon says that he doesn’t recognise him and blows him off fairly diplomatically.
But then there arrives a house warming gift from Gordo, even though Simon has never told him where they live. And then there is the surprise drop by from Gordon. He becomes a persistent but clearly unwelcome presence in the lives of Simon and Robyn. She is a little too polite in her dealing with Gordo, but Simon wants nothing to do with him. Gordo is harbouring a deep seated grudge over events that happened years earlier at school. There is more to the background between Simon and Gordo than Simon is prepared to let on. As the movie progresses though we learn more about the connection between Simon and Gordo, and some troubling secrets about Simon’s past emerge. He is clearly not the man that Robyn thought he was. The more that Robyn learns about Simon the more terrified she becomes of him as well.
The Gift follows a number of other thrillers dealing with the increasingly unsettling and possibly malevolent presence of a stranger or a stalker who intrudes into a domestic setting, films such as Single White Female, Pacific Heights, etc. Edgerton is clearly a fan of such thrillers.
There have been numerous films that have also dealt with the issue of bullying (Larry Clark’s Bully, and Lee Hisch’s powerful documentary of the same name, etc) but most of them have been set at high school and dealt with the issue from an adolescent perspective. The Gift actually looks at the long term effects of having been bullied at high school, and how the emotional and psychological scars of that mental torment can change the adult and even ruin their lives. The film also considers the destructive nature of that thirst for revenge and the impact that the lack of remorse from the aggressor can also have on a damaged psyche.
Edgerton brings a slick Hitchcock-like air of suspense to this small and twisted slow burn domestic thriller that draws the audience in. Edgerton has obviously been studying some of the directors he has worked under, and he effectively uses the claustrophobic settings, lighting and disturbing characters to build up the atmosphere. And there is a nice ambiguous touch to the ending that will have audiences heatedly discussing some aspects of the film.
Edgerton also proves himself a great director of actors too, and draws some great performances from his central cast. Edgerton is effectively unnerving as Gordo “the weirdo”, whose behaviour and demeanour grows more unsettling as the film progesses. He plays some vicious mind games with Simon and effectively gets inside his head. But he manages to make the audience begin to care for the character despite some early hints that his character may be dangerous. It’s a delightful ambiguity that Edgerton is happy to exploit.
Bateman (from the tv series Arrested Development and a string of light weight comedies) is cleverly cast against type here as the slick and confident Simon and his performance comes as something of a revelation. Bateman usually plays the likeable but slightly sarcastic smart aleck type. Here Edgerton gives him plenty of opportunities to subvert his usual stereotype and slowly peel away his nice guy persona to reveal a darker nature. Hall doesn’t have a lot to do but she is effective as the initially fragile damsel who grows in strength and resilience as events unfold.
The Gift is one of the more satisfying and effective thrillers to hit the screens this year, and it certainly cements Edgerton’s reputation as a great writer. And now he establishes himself as a director to watch as well.