Best known for his work in front of the camera, Joel Edgerton wrote and directed The Gift, a borderline Hitchcockian stalker drama in which nothing is quite as it seems. The Callens, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn, (Rebecca Hall) are a couple who seem to have it made – moving on from their old life in Chicago, they’ve just relocated to a swanky house in Los Angeles. Simon is due for a big promotion at work and Robyn is eager to start a family in their beautiful new home.
However, a chance encounter with Gordon ‘Gordo’ Mosley, (Edgerton) a former high school classmate of Simon’s, upsets the status quo. He welcomes them to the neighbourhood with small tokens of friendship and offers to help set up the entertainment system, but soon unnerves Simon with his behaviour. When he eventually draws the line and asks Gordo to leave them alone, Robyn feels caught in the middle of whatever unresolved tension exists between her anxious husband and their overly affable new neighbour.
You can get as much as we’ll tell you in that synopsis from the trailer and that makes this a curious case. Some people really hate trailers, but the marketing teams who put them together have to walk a thin line. The impetus seems to be towards condensing the whole plot of a film into two and a half minutes. Audiences seldom complain that a trailer didn’t show enough, but showing too much is a much more common cause for consternation.
The marketing campaign for The Gift has a much rarer problem. Once you’ve seen the film, you know that the trailer barely scratches the surface of what it turns out to be, but for those who’ve made their mind up not to see it, it may be because the trailer looks for all the world as if it’s given the game away.
Happily, that’s not the case. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that Edgerton is an actor’s director, but with a performer taking the helm, as well as scripting duties, this is a thriller that sustains ambiguity and tension for longer than should really be feasible, with little more than good dialogue performed well and some interesting shots.
Gordo is undeniably the interloper into the domestic bliss that awaits Simon and Robyn, but Edgerton evidently takes glee in turning the script on its head every quarter of an hour or so by reminding us that we don’t really know much more about Simon, whose reminiscences about his classmate we’re meant to take as read, or Robyn, whose psychological state may be part of the reason for the couple’s change of scene. A truly seismic revelation comes slap bang at the midpoint, but Edgerton keeps turning the screws, never letting the viewer settle into a false sense of perceptiveness.
‘Hitchcockian’ is an easy buzzword to tag onto anything good in this genre, but that comparison is truest of the cinematography and editing – we get plenty of the requisite thriller shots of private or intimate moments from points of view where no one ought to be, but the staging of scenes and conflict makes tried-and-tested techniques feel tense and effective.
It’s an effective three hander between Bateman, Hall and Edgerton and the script shuffles them in and out of prominence as we go on. Of the three, Robyn is perhaps the least complicated, although that’s no dint to Hall’s nuanced performance or any of the twists that arise from the character’s personality and actions. She’s brilliant here, as always.
On the other hand, it’s sometimes tough to use Bateman’s particular set of skills as an actor so well. Even though Simon ostensibly seems like a character cut from the same short rag as Matthew Modine in Pacific Heights or Nick Nolte in Scorsese’s Cape Fear, this role feels like it was made for him and he plays it to a tee. Edgerton takes the most enigmatic character for himself and his socially awkward loner makes each and every scene more intense by his inscrutability.
Despite the way in which the film focuses on this lead trio, special mention should go to Fargo‘s Allison Tolman, who holds an admirable claim on every scene that she’s in with her understated role as a confidante for Robyn. She’s a terrific screen presence and this marks a strong transition to films from the small screen role of Detective Molly Solverson.
The cut of Bateman’s character should suggest that this has some of its roots in the kind of domestic thriller that was a big box office draw for a while and that certainly bears out over the course of the film, especially in the absolutely bananas closing movement. Some will have issues with the implications for one of the characters following that final section, but it’s easier to forgive when the film does so well in wrong-footing you at every turn on the way to the end.
Ignore the trailers – The Gift is as unpredictable and engrossing as they come. It builds up an immensely personal sense of claustrophobia, buoyed by confident direction, a script keeps you guessing and a trio (plus one) of beguiling, reined-in performances. It keeps you on the edge of your seat from the very beginning, right up to the revelatory final shot.
If you’re unfamiliar with Edgerton’s work behind the camera thus far, then this subversive psycho-thriller should leave you in no doubt of his status as a triple threat.
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