The Gift (2015)
Not Every Gift Is Welcome.
To use its own metaphor, watching The Gift is sort of like unwrapping a present, unveiling it layer by layer until the final surprise is revealed. While this process might sound a little tedious, those who have a soft spot for late-night cable flicks or enjoy intelligent slow-burn thrillers will find themselves quivering in delight as they tear open this well-crafted package. Emerging out of New South Wales, Australia, the 41-year-old Joel Edgerton has made a name for himself as an actor working in Australia and abroad, with titles such as Animal Kingdom (2010) and Warrior (2011) already under his belt. With only a few screenwriting credits in his filmography — including the likes of The Square (2008) and Felony (2013) — The Gift marks Edgerton’s writing-directing debut, a psychological nail-biter that subverts audience expectations with every revelation, one that’s as more focused on disturbing viewers rather than making them jump. Given his obvious enamor for the project, with Edgerton credited as writer, director and actor, The Gift makes for an impressive show reel, as it smoothly highlights his confidence and skill, both in front of, and behind the lens.
Having just moved from Chicago to Los Angeles for a fresh start, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn Callen (Rebecca Hall) appear to be a happily married well-to-do couple that are looking to start a family. Shifting into a uniquely designed home, the pair quickly slip into their daily routines; Simon commences a snazzy new job at a high-profile digital security firm whilst Robyn — following a breakdown in Chicago tied to a miscarriage — starts working from home as she strives to get back into her passion of freelance designing. While out buying supplies for their new home, the couple run into Gordon ‘Gordo’ Moseley (Joel Edgerton), Simon’s old classmate; a lonely guy who seems desperate to reconnect. After pushing himself into the pair’s life with gifts and daily visits — usually when Simon is at work and his wife is alone at home — Robyn warms to Gordo and considers him to be a sensitive lost soul, who has nothing but good intentions for the pair. Simon on the other hand becomes frustrated by Gordo’s omnipresence and refuses to rekindle any sort of friendship with this face from the past. As more extravagant gifts pop up — complete with notes finishing in smiley faces — Simon seeks to ‘politely’ put an end to this ‘asymmetric relationship’ after a strange evening at Gordo’s surprisingly posh two-storey house. When the couple’s dog mysteriously disappears — a wink to Fatal Attraction (1987) perhaps? — Simon assumes that Gordo hasn’t taken too well to his reprimand and immediately suspects the ‘weirdo’ as the culprit, urging Robyn to forget about him and simply move on. But after receiving one final note from Gordo, which addresses Simon by stating that he was willing to ‘let bygones be bygones,’ Robyn begins her own investigation into the mysterious man from her husband’s former life, uncovering Simon’s dark, questionable past in the process.
Seeing as The Gift plays a game of secrets, it’s rather difficult to write about the flick without giving too much away, but let me try my best. Admittedly, Edgerton’s debut is rather impressive considering the dexterity behind the camera; Edgerton directs the picture with a steady hand and an eye for detail, cinematography by Eduard Grau, Buried (2010), is claustrophobic and gorgeous, and plays like a Hitchcockian funhouse, with shots of the Hollywood Hills evoking the great David Lynch, Mulholland Dr. (2001), whereas editing by Luke Doolan, Animal Kingdom (2010), is sharp and effective. Even the couple’s incredible, glass-walled house lends itself to the story in terms of vulnerability, ratcheting up the dread and menacing undercurrent that’s crucial when building suspense. Drawing from ’80s/early-’90s thrillers such as Single White Female (1992) and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992), Edgerton keeps The Gift’s premise deceivingly simple as it becomes more complex and involving with every twist and turn, shifting perspectives as moral ambiguity ensues. The Gift basically follows genre conventions for its first part, with Edgerton steadily building tension, painting Gordo as a strange, withdrawn guy who’s too inept to secure friends like Simon and Robyn as he tries to win them over by giving them gifts such as wine and filling their koi pond with real fish. Although a handful of scenes successfully build unease and discomfort in creepy home invasion fashion, Edgerton sometimes resorts to cheap scares for jolts, veering away from the sophisticated thrills he’s clearly trying to achieve.
However, Edgerton reverts the second part of the film by exposing exactly who Simon is. By peeling back the layers of his affable charm, patrons are encouraged to re-examine their sympathies for the ‘apparent’ protagonist, and by extension, their contempt for Gordo and his crackpot behavior. As motives become clear, the picture seeks to evaluate the act of bullying as it urges us to introspectively examine the wrongs we may have committed, in this case, while at school, where perhaps a rumor we’ve spread has gone on to scar its victim. Remember, what one person recalls as a harmless practical joke, another may internalize as an extremely hurtful offense. Marriage is also a subject explored in the film, namely as it comments on honesty, or lack thereof, between couples, addressing the question, how well do we know those closest to us? Subsequently, Edgerton frames the narrative through Robyn’s perspective, not only because she’s basically in the dark about the man she’s married — just like viewers — but because she eventually becomes the emotional center of the story — after Simon’s façade falls apart — and the only character whom audiences wind up rooting for. Nonetheless, The Gift isn’t without its flaws, particularly when it comes to a few of its side plots, which are introduced for character depth and plot progression, but are never entirely resolved — Robyn’s drug abuse and Simon’s work situation for instance.
Although Robyn’s neighbor Lucy (Allison Tolman), and a handful of Simon’s colleagues do show up from time to time, The Gift essentially hinges on its three principal players. Jason Bateman, Horrible Bosses (2011), who’s better known for his more comedic roles, subverts his natural charm and pulls off a convincing balancing act, one that switches between charismatic nice guy to condescending jerk — sometimes even both at once — in an excellent performance of equal heft and gravitas. The underrated Rebecca Hall, Vicky Cristina Barcelona (2008), is the perfect complement for Bateman’s Simon, playing the part of his open, sympathetic and vulnerable wife Robyn, with Hall’s performance suggesting a painful past, one that she’s desperately trying to leave behind. Wearing three different hats — figuratively speaking — Joel Edgerton shines as the unnerving, socially awkward Gordon ‘Gordo’ Moseley, with his boyish exposure, unsightly goatee and hoop earring, Edgerton goes from naïve, nimble and almost neighborly — despite his increasingly troubling behavior — to a sinister, carefully calculated sociopath, intent on getting his retribution while putting a twisted spin on the game ‘Simon Says,’ with his actions proving that real terror is that of the mind.
At the end of the day, the film’s success should ultimately be attributed to Edgerton’s tremendous efforts, not only as a co-star of the film, but also as the writer and first-time director, having crafted a taut squeaker that will no doubt get under people’s skin. Keeping patrons guessing for its entire 108 minute run time — not just as to what will happen next, but also as to whom these characters actually are — The Gift is a genuinely riveting feature, a spine-chiller that finishes with a shocking climax which shrouds its final moments with dread and uncertainty. But be warned, those with a fear of monkeys should steer well clear of this one!
3.5 / 5 – Great
Reviewed by Mr. Movie
The Gift is released through Roadshow Entertainment Australia