The creative potential on display in Joel Edgerton’s The Gift is remarkably refreshing. The actor-turned-director, who also wrote the screenplay, has composed a skillful and assured directorial debut. It’s a sly contemporary suspense-thriller, without the mindless sex and violence that plagues the genre. We could use a few more of these. Edgerton is unquestionably a filmmaker to keep an eye on in the future.
A married couple, Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) run into Gordo (Edgerton) one of Simon’s high school buddies at the mall. The two pals haven’t seen each other since grad night, having split off on two different paths. Simon’s path led him to wealth, success and Robyn. As you can probably surmise, Gordo’s path was a dead end, leading him to poverty, failure and sadness.
Initially, Robyn is elated to see Simon reconnecting with Gordo, this lost soul who seems to desperately need a friend. It’s not long before gifts from Gordo are arriving at their door. And then more gifts.They don’t know what to make of this man. Soon, Gordo’s generous tokens of appreciation take on a far more menacing quality.
Describing the plot any further would risk spoiling some rather cleverly orchestrated surprises. For a majority of the running time, The Gift is a first-rate thriller in the vein of Fatal Attraction, delivering a set up that intelligently hooks and intrigues. Edgerton’s screenplay contains sequences of marvelous inspiration, always keeping its audience guessing. Is this a whodunit? Perhaps no one dunit!
When the screenplay does falter, its in an attempt to maintain a moralistic viewpoint of its characters. Admittedly, the film could trigger some much needed discussions between audience members afterward, despite an occasionally heavy-handed approach. I have no problem with the content of the film’s message. I just fail to see why the message itself was necessary.
In its best moments, the film keeps its audience anticipating each coming scene with fascination and dread. It finds drama in the minutia of human interaction in a canny, observant fashion. Like an episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm directed by Michael Haneke, horror can be found in the most mundane places.
In its worst moments, Edgerton’s script is too fussy and polite for its own good, shying away from nastier details. With The Gift, Edgerton vainly aspires to the lofty heights of films like Park-Chan Wook’s Oldboy. The Korean film is indeed a twisted mind-game considered by many to be a modern masterwork. Edgerton’s script is too squeamish to get its hands dirty. Yet, the finest thrillers carry dirt and grime deep under their fingernails.
The climax of The Gift, which can be easily telegraphed ahead of time, feels somewhat underwhelming. When discussing thrillers, predicting a turn in the plot before it happens can be a common occurrence. Yet, some plot twists bear more narrative weight than others. A clunky, predictable plot development will seem twice as clunky in a film filled with unpredictable twists.
Roger Michell’s underrated Enduring Love and Mike White’s twisted Chuck and Buck jump to mind as they handle similar narrative territory with a more subversive, surrealistic edge. The film also bears comparison to Denis Villeneuve’s Prisoners, another cleverly grim suspense-thriller, which stumbles slightly in the third act.
In front of the camera, Edgerton delivers an unusually subtle performance as Gordo, a hapless sad-sack who may or may not be harassing this couple. Or, is he just a hopeless loser looking for a little kindness? The script walks a fine line, seeming to play both angles. Edgerton’s performance plays those same angles, a walking contradiction of a character, whom we’re never sure about. A shaky tension is felt whenever he’s on screen.
When we first meet Simon and Robyn, they are photographed separated by a pane of glass. There’s a coldness and distance between husband and wife, quietly indicating trouble in paradise. Bateman’s Simon is a smarmy cad, utterly unlikeable from the first scene. It’s a solid and commendable dramatic turn from an actor better known for comedic roles.
Hall’s performance is the best aspect of The Gift, playing Robyn as a vulnerable and conflicted fighter with an understandably rocky past. The vast majority of the narrative rests on Hall’s shoulders, as Robyn is forced to play detective behind her husband’s back. What secrets lie between her husband and Gordo, this seemingly harmless man?
An imperfect movie, but for casual film goers, The Gift will be an engaging and satisfyingly morbid thriller. (3.5/5 stars)
Fun fact: Sam Raimi directed a top-notch thriller also titled The Gift about fifteen years ago, starring Cate Blanchett and Keanu Reeves.
Tony Hinds is a Canadian writer, who studied film at the University of Winnipeg. Tony has reviewed films for Step On Magazine, The Uniter and ShowbizMonkeys.com. You can find Tony on Twitter.