At first glance “The Gift” looked like another movie about a creepy guy with a secret who dupes and then terrorizes a naïve family. We’ve seen this before, even last year with “The Guest”. But looks can be deceiving and just like the naïve families in these films, I was expecting one thing but what I got was surprisingly different – a mesmerizing swirl of twists, turns, and revelations that consistently subverted every expectation I had.
I’ve been a big fan of Joel Edgerton since he grabbed my attention in 2010’s “Animal Kingdom”. “The Gift” is clearly his movie where he serves as co-star, co-producer, writer, and director. Edgerton has received several past writing credits but this original work may be his best. Even more impressive, the film marks Edgerton’s directorial debut and it doesn’t take long to realize he knows his way behind a camera. There is an undeniable harmony between Edgerton’s writing and direction. Both fluidly combine to reveal his keen sense of storytelling which transcends any limitations such as the film’s meager $5 million budget. Edgerton is completely in tune with his characters and the tone that he is going for. Perhaps most importantly the story doesn’t dumb itself down or lazily rely on overused clichés. It certainly hits some of the normal genre ticks, but you almost sense that it’s doing it to set the audience up in order to pull the rug out from under them later on.
Jason Bateman is perfectly cast to play the confident and controlling Simon. He and his wife Robyn (played equally well by Rebecca Hall) have just moved to Los Angeles from Chicago after he gets a swanky new job at a large security firm. Their move was also influenced by hopes of leaving some difficulties behind and starting a new chapter in their relationship. It begins with them buying a stylish new home in an upperclass neighborhood.
One day while accessory shopping for their new home they run into Gordo (Edgerton), a timid and mousy former classmate of Simon’s. The chance meeting leads to a series of awkward encounters. Gordo begins leaving them house gifts and popping up during the day while Simon is at work. Simon is leery and uncomfortable around Gordo while Robyn is a bit more sympathetic and curious. This leads to the film’s key focus – three characters confronted with truth, consequences, and sins from the past. To tell any more would be doing a disservice.
The three central performances are vital. Bateman often relegates himself to lame raunchy comedies, but here he shows an extraordinary natural bend that tops anything he has done to date. Rebecca Hall continues to be one of our most earnest and expressive actresses, delivering superb work while tackling the most emotionally complex character of the three. But Edgerton’s performance may be the key. It would be easy for him to fall into conventional traps but he steers clear of that. Instead he gives us a character so thoroughly cryptic. One minute he has us challenging our sympathies and the next we are squirming in your seats.
Edgerton listed Hitchcock and Haneke among his influences for the film and you can sense it. A stealthy and tense Hitchcockian vibe flows from the title screen to the end credits. Edgerton has given us a crafty thriller made with an impeccable sense of pacing. It is deceptively smart, hypnotically intense, and most importantly it never tips its hand. This is one of the more impressive directorial debuts and Joel Edgerton has exposed himself to be a gifted filmmaker and storyteller. Here’s hoping we get a lot more from him in the future.
VERDICT – 4.5 STARS