WRITTEN REVIEW – The Gift (2015)
While this review of ‘The Gift’ will not reveal any twists and turns the narrative takes, it’s best to experience this movie knowing as little about it as possible. Plot elements may be inferred or hinted at in this review. Just go see the movie.
Directed by: Joel Edgerton
Written by: Joel Edgerton
Starring: Rebecca Hall, Jason Bateman & Joel Edgerton
Music: Danny Bensi & Saunder Jurriaans
Release Date: August 7th 2015
2015 has been a pretty strong year for first-time directors. We had Alex Garland receive audience/critical acclaim with ‘Ex Machina‘ as well as dozens of independent awards, Elizabeth Banks with ‘Pitch Perfect 2‘, John MacLean with ‘Slow West‘ and Paul Bettany put acting on hold to direct the indie drama ‘Shelter‘. However, one debut to come out of left field was Joel Edgerton who has written and directed a thriller movie through horror-production company Blumhouse Productions.
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I think of decent action/drama character-actor Joel Edgerton (‘Warrior‘, ‘Zero Dark Thirty‘, ‘The Great Gatsby‘, ‘Black Mass‘ and more) I don’t think of a thriller director, but stranger things have happened. And while the output from Blumhouse has been incredibly mixed, despite huge box-office returns, they have released many superb dramas such as ‘Whiplash‘ earlier this year. So are we left with an effective gift or something that should be sent back?
Simon and Robyn Callum (Bateman & Hall) have just moved into their new home in L.A. looking for a fresh start and allowing Simon to advance in his career while the two attempt to have a child. One day, whilst out shopping, they run into Gordon “Gordo” Moseley (Edgerton) who knew Simon in high school and Gordo then quickly tries to become part of the Callum’s life. Whether it’s his oddly affectionate behaviour towards Robyn, him leaving gifts on their doorstep such as wine or even fish for their new pond, Gordo seems keen to be friends with the couple but Simon tries to stop the situation from escalating. Soon enough, Simon’s past starts to catch up with him leaving Robyn to try and solve the mystery that her husband is keeping from her about him and Gordo’s past.
While being produced under the Blumhouse name, you’d think that ‘The Gift‘ was a horror/stalker movie and it would have been easy for Joel Edgerton to go in that direction. But what we actually have here is a drama/mystery movie and a slow-burn character-piece revolving around this couple that are looking for a fresh start and an element from Simon’s past catching up with him in the form of Gordo. As a result, with very few horror elements (save for one very good jump-scare around the middle of the movie) what ‘The Gift‘ needs to succeed is to give us richly detailed characters.
Thankfully, Joel Edgerton’s script (as he’s pulling triple duty as director, writer AND actor) is up to the task as all three are not only engaging to listen to throughout the film, but all three characters seem to appear mostly fully-formed with apparent back-stories, a sense of weight and lives lived. Simon and Robyn may be making a fresh start in L.A., but their previous life in Chicago has clearly affected both of them, particularly Robyn. It gives the impression that these characters had lives before the movie started and that their lives will continue after the credits roll, but the audience are watching a life-changing altercation take place during this transition.
A lot of this comes down to superb performances and an up-ending of audience’s expectations. Yes, Gordo is a bit of a socially-awkward person who may seem very forward by sending gifts to Simon and Robyn’s house despite them not giving them his address (though, in a nice bit of detail, the audience can figure out HOW Gordo discovered their address if they’re paying attention) but the way Gordo explains his situation and what’s happening in his life, it’s easy to be sympathetic towards him. Despite directing and writing the movie, Joel Edgerton doesn’t go for a show-stealing role. In fact, his acting is incredibly subdued in a way that benefits the mood of the movie as well as the character. Gordo doesn’t come across as a psycho, but he has enough ticks to potentially creep out the audience and he’s a hard character to read. Is he lying about the drama in his personal life right now? Does he really want to be friends with Simon? Does he have romantic feelings for Robyn? It’s hard to get a read on him which makes the narrative more unpredictable in an organic way.
While this is Edgerton’s project, the dramatic heavy-lifting comes from Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall (rocking awesome short hair) and it’s with these two where a lot of the movie’s up-ending of drama/thriller tropes comes into play while toying with the audience’s expectations. Saying that this movie plays with conventions in that maybe the antagonist/protagonist relationship between Simon and Gordo is actually the opposite would be massively simplifying the conflict the movie portrays. But for this type of role, Jason Bateman’s casting is a stroke of genius where he can play the charming, alpha-male, popular guy effortlessly. But when it comes time to demonstrate just who this character really is, in one of the best dialogue sequences of 2015, we get to see Bateman show a completely different side to his acting. It’s counter-casting at its finest and Bateman nails it. Suffice it to say, I actually think this is the best performance of Bateman’s career
“I moved on, I made something of my life! This world’s about fucking winners and losers and we’re all in the same shitty playground, y’know? Guess what, that this guy lost and then he’s moaning about it is just him being stuck because he WANTS to be stuck because he can’t get past the fucking moment!”
I’d love to give a proper character analysis of Bateman’s character but that would be going into major spoiler-territory and ‘The Gift‘ is based on surprises, up-ending expectations and giving us dramatic U-turns that shape the narrative in unconventional ways. Oddly enough though, ‘The Gift‘ is the type of mystery movie that will reward repeat viewings. Most mystery films aren’t nearly as good the second or third time you watch them because the mystery is what’s holding everything together, but with ‘The Gift‘ we have heavy thematic beats demonstrating how the words that people say and the actions that people take can have incredible psychological consequences and examples of this are strewn all the way through the film. Re-watching the movie knowing what it’s trying to say about people and the themes it’s delving into is an immensely rewarding viewing experience.
‘The Gift‘ isn’t a movie that’ll make you afraid to be home alone, or make you afraid of strangers. It’ll make you afraid of yourself. It’ll make you think about things you said or did in your past. Things you considered minor and things you’d try to say to justify it to yourself, ‘The Gift‘ will make you afraid that they’ll come back to haunt you. Because words have impact and words have power.
Of course, it’d be wrong to not mention Rebecca Hall who is actually the main character all things considered. 90% of the movie takes place from her perspective and she is the one being pro-active and trying to figure out what secrets her husband is keeping from her as well as being the voice-of-reason and giving Gordo the benefit of the doubt. This is easily one of Hall’s best performances with a lot of the movie relying on her sole screen presence as she’s on her own trying to put these pieces together.
If there’s one critique to place on ‘The Gift‘ it’s that the supporting cast feel rather superfluous. There are a few minor characters whose presence feels welcome, such as Simon and Robyn’s neighbours and a few of Simon’s work-colleagues but then when more minor characters start getting introduced towards the end with nothing to contribute other than padding out the scene, it doesn’t feel needed. Their performances also aren’t especially good. ‘The Gift‘ works as a three-way movie with Hall, Bateman and Edgerton. There’s not much needed for a dozen other minor cast members. The movie also feels a lot longer than its 108 minute runtime. I feel like some scenes of Rebecca Hall feeling paranoid at home could have been a lot shorter to trim that to around 95-100 minutes. Basically, the movie just needed to be more economical.
But production-wise, the $5M movie has a lot going for it. Joel Edgerton and cinematographer Eduard Grau (‘Suffragette‘, ‘Buried‘ and ‘Suite Française‘) manage to tow the line between dramatic cinematography while catering to horror sensibilities. This is a suspenseful character-piece and the way ‘The Gift‘ is filmed demonstrates that. Whether it’s the lay-out of Simon and Robyn’s new house, or the effective lighting, there’s always something interesting to fill the frame and leave the viewer on edge. Sound-wise, there’s not much to the music and while the rest of the sound is fine, there are noticeable cuts during certain dialogue sequences where different takes were used mid-sentence. It’s a nit-pick, however, especially since Joel Edgerton does a superb impression of a helicopter throughout the film which redeems it (no joke).
‘The Gift‘ could have easily been a by-the-book stalker thriller but instead decided to take the high-road and mess with audience expectations. It’s an effective character-drama that’s book-ended by an engaging set-up as well as an ending that is absolutely flooring. Hitchcock would have been proud. It’s the type of ending that doesn’t feel gimmicky and it’s one of the rare moments in modern film where ambiguity is actually used to strengthen the movie as opposed to being a cop-out for the writer. The lead performances are superb and Joel Edgerton’s script feels very human, detailed and full of relevant, affecting themes. While Blumhouse have made some terrible films that have been very profitable, if they’re using that profit to make movies like ‘The Gift‘ then I think everything balances out well.
I give ‘The Gift‘ 4 and a half stars out of 5.
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Posted: 8th Jan 16