I’ve always been a big fan of Joel Edgerton, one of the most underrated and talented actors to come out of Australia in recent years. And I’ve now become a super huge fan after seeing his directorial debut, The Gift, a seemingly cookie-cutter suburban thriller that’s anything but.
Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall play Simon and Robin, a couple who move from Chicago to LA for reasons that become apparent as the movie progresses. Shortly after moving in, they bump into Gordon “Gordo” Mosley, played by Edgerton, who claims to have gone to high school with Simon decades ago. And so begins an awkward and tense relationship between the couple and the mysterious blast from the past, who as the title and trailer suggest, likes to deliver creepy gifts to their doorstep.
That’s all I can say about the plot without giving away spoilers, and on the face of that description, The Gift may dredge up memories of 90s surburban/family thrillers like Pacific Heights and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. But even if that’s all it is — ie, a typical genre film — The Gift is a pretty good one. With well-developed characters, an uneasy atmosphere and genuine edge-of-your-seat suspense, it’s already a few steps ahead of more recent efforts such as 1999’s Arlington Road, 2001’s Domestic Disturbance and 2008’s Lakeview Terrace.
However, The Gift is much more than a typical genre film. It’s a subversive journey full of twists and turns, challenging audiences to put aside preconceived notions. Edgerton’s direction and script (yes, he wrote it too) plays with our knowledge and expectation of such thrillers, manipulating us into thinking one way and then shocking us with another. But it’s not all about tricking us either, as there are times when he chooses more conventional thriller paths and cliches — it’s just that we never know which approach he will take. It’s clear Edgerton, with his wealth of experience as an actor, knows how certain filmmaking techniques will make audiences think and feel, and he has taken full advantage of that.
I don’t want to overstate things here — we’re not talking about genius-level brilliance like The Usual Suspects or anything like that — though for a debut feature it’s hard to deny that Edgerton is impressive and has a wonderful future ahead of him if he decides to focus on more behind-the-camera work.
Full credit too to the cast. I love Jason Bateman, so don’t get me wrong, but he’s always more or less playing a variation of Michael Bluth from Arrested Development (think about it — Horrible Bosses, The Switch, The Change-Up, Identity Thief, Couples Retreat, This is Where I Leave You, etc). The Gift is the first time I’ve seen him play a completely different character, and I’m frankly quite shocked by how great of a dramatic actor he is. It’s the best performance I’ve seen from him by far.
The lovely Rebecca Hall also gets to show off her acting chops more than I’ve seen from her in any film probably since Vicky Cristina Barcelona. In many ways, she’s actually the centre of the film, as audiences are closer to her point of view than anyone else’s. She’s vulnerable, she’s sympathetic and she’s tough when she needs to be. It’s a complex, multi-layered performance and Hall hits it out of the park.
By comparison, I was actually least wowed by Edgerton’s own performance, which is still a very good one but more difficult to gauge because Gordo is the “outsider” of the story. Edgerton undergoes a bit of a physical transformation to play this role, dying his hair red and dialling the creepiness meter to the max to make audiences as standoffish about Gordo as the protagonists are.
Also worthy of mention is Allison Tolman from TV’s Fargo. She only has a small role as the neighbour, but she manages to make her character more noticeable and memorable than it otherwise would have been.
As clever and crafty as The Gift is, the film does descend into more familiar thriller territory in its third act, veering towards improbable and preposterous plot developments that don’t always make sense. Some might think this “ruins” the film; for me, it’s just the consequence of trying too hard to come up with an explosive climax, a trap that — let’s face it — 99% of thrillers fall into. It’s not bad, it’s just a missed opportunity to take the film to the next level.
A less than optimal conclusion notwithstanding, The Gift is a superb thriller fuelled by skilfully moulded tension and conflicts, strong performances and a promising directorial debut from Joel Edgerton. I hope this film will open the door for us to see more efforts like this from him down the track.
4 stars out of 5