The Gift marks the feature film directorial debut for Aussie export Joel Edgerton – and he figured a nail-biting thriller would be the way to go. Hopes were high for this movie to achieve great success for our Joel, and indeed early reviews have been pretty positive so far…
So, is it any good?
The Gift follows professional couple Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) as they settle into a sleek mid-century home in Southern California’s beautiful San Fernando Valley. A shopping trip to buy furniture for their new pad leads to a chance encounter with the shy and socially awkward Gordo (Joel Edgerton). Gordo excitedly greets Simon, and reminds him that they went to school together, but Simon struggles to recall him at all. The exchange was as pleasant as it was brief, and the couple cheerily said their goodbyes to Gordo and went on their merry way. If you haven’t guessed that that won’t be the last we see of Gordo, you better go ahead and guess again.
Later, Simon and Rebecca discover a neatly-wrapped present on their doorstep: a housewarming gift of a bottle of wine and a note from Gordo. Huh…Gordo must have heard them saying their address to the furniture salesman for delivery purposes. That’s a little strange, but no biggie! The couple moves on, and in the course of their busy lives neglect to thank Gordo for his kind gesture. Then one day when Simon is at his high-powered office job, Gordo turns up on his doorstep to find Robyn home alone. The two get to chatting, and it dawns on the audience that Gordo isn’t one to take a hint that he might be overstaying his welcome…
Gordo and the happy couple have dinner together to reminisce about his time at school with Simon, and to catch up on where their lives have lead them since. Simon is all too happy to talk about himself and his accomplishments, and Gordo lavishes praise upon him, explaining he always knew he was destined for big things. Gordo seems to idolise the cocky-seeming Simon’s career, home, and wife. Gordo himself, we discover, served in the military, and beyond that, is something of a mystery. He comes across as pretty intense, but ultimately well-meaning. More gifts are to follow. And more appearances of Gordo at Rebecca’s door when Simon is at work. In a knee-jerk jealous reaction, Simon decides that Gordo is altogether too obsessed with his wife, and resolves to cut ties with Gordo once and for all.
Chyeah, good luck, Gordo won’t be discarded so easily. It unravels – as what tends to happen in the thriller genre – that perhaps things are not as they seem, and the obsessive Gordo drives a wedge between Simon and Robyn, as Robyn discovers secrets about her husband and the odd houseguest he went to school with, and struggles to maintain her sanity in the process. Being a twisty-turny thriller, I’m going to omit the spoileriffic details of the plot. But suffice it to say that Gordo’s reign of creepy terror keeps the tension mounting before erupting into a bananas third act which may shock some portions of the audience.
Joel Edgerton put in triple duty for The Gift as its writer, director, and star – an incredibly ambitious task for a first-time helmer. It must be said that Edgerton handled all three roles well, with his scriptwriting effort being the strongest. The Edgerton-penned Felony (2013) was a measured character study, which introduced complex characters in difficult moral traps, and allowed them breathing room for their situations to play out.
Indeed it is the remarkable restraint he demonstrates in all three roles in this picture which does elevate it above many others of the same genre. The Gift is a slow build, and there are going to be many who feel that it is too slow to get into the meat of the story. The device of Gordo appearing at the door or unloading another unwelcome gift does get repetitive, as once the audience is positioned to find Gordo a little creepy yet oblivious to his creepiness, we want the plot to advance, but are instead treated to more of the same. I understand that the point of these scenes is to make us squirm in our seats, but I instead found my mind going for a wander out the door.
Jason Bateman is an extremely funny man, so I wondered if I was going to be able to take him seriously in this film. He has managed to deliver a very precise performance, hitting exactly the dramatic beats needed to navigate Simon through the trials brought on by his former school chum. Rebecca Hall really does illuminate the screen. Her Robyn is equal parts strong, warm, and vulnerable. Her role in bringing the heart to this movie is so vital, the whole thing may very well have crumbled under a lesser actor’s chops. That reminds me, I feel like crumbed chops for dinner.
So, why is it not any good? Well, it’s not a terrible movie by any stretch of the imagination. The feeling of irksome dread coming in at a creeping pace is quite refreshing as a counterpoint to countless movies which are so desperate to hold your attention (to cover for a myriad of deficiencies) they jump straight into the action and the blood gets flowing in short order. The Gift suffers ultimately from a disappointing ending, where a genuinely interesting twist is introduced, only to be reversed in a subsequent twist. In one fell swoop, the carefully constructed house of cards Edgerton constructed buckled under its own weight, leaving me with a dissatisfied feeling. I think Edgerton will only get better though in future efforts as his style evolves, and I’m keen to see what he comes up with next.