The Gift is on-the-rise leading man Joel Edgerton’s feature-length directorial debut, and the actor shows promise behind the camera. He can display a skillful control of his shots and the audience even if he tries to do too much with this psychological thriller. In short, his deft handling of individual moments and scenes does not translate into a skillful command over the film as a whole.
Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have moved from Chicago to suburban Los Angeles in an effort to start afresh. Simon has a new job, and he hopes that the relocation will be good for Robyn, who, it is hinted, suffered a miscarriage back in Chicago and possibly has some mental health issues. Suburban Los Angeles also happens to be where Simon grew up. The film opens with them buying a new house in the hills—a beautiful mid-century modern home with many large windows, which is an ominous design for what is set up to be a stalker thriller.
One day while the couple is out shopping, they bump into somebody Simon went to school with. Gordo is his name (Joel Edgerton). Gordo sort of stutters, has a thick brown goatee, and wears an ugly tan jacket and pleated dark pants. He looks, and is, awkward. Simon says he didn’t recognize Gordo at first, and we sense that they weren’t really friends back in the day. Simon and Robyn take his number and promise to get in touch, but it’s clearly with the intention of brushing him off. Simon later explains to Robyn that the kids at school used to call him “Gordo the Weirdo.”
The next day a gift, a bottle of wine, shows up on the doorstep of their new house. Gordo starts dropping by during the day, and soon other gifts arrive, such as koi fish for their pond. Robyn, who is home alone most days and perhaps somewhat socially awkward herself, doesn’t mind Gordo so much, but Simon grows irritated and wants to put a stop to Gordo’s intrusive attempts at friendship. The film does a good job at showing how the social expectations attached to gifts can compel interaction, at least for a time, as well as the difficulties of avoiding or disliking someone so persistent while remaining polite.
If I’ve taken a while to explain the characters and set up, it’s because The Gift does so itself. It carefully sets up the situation and hints at deeper issues between the characters. As the film develops, revelations about each character will be brought to light, throwing some characters in more, others in less favourable light. The careful progression of dark revelations, mostly confined to domestic settings, as well as the pervading sense of inevitable tragedy made me think of the plays of Henrik Ibsen.
My comparison to the lauded 19th-century Norwegian playwright might seem overstated, but I want to emphasize the film’s dramatic strengths. Despite these strengths, The Gift is less effective as a psychological thriller, a genre the film is clearly operating in. Edgerton’s film is ambitious, but the shifts in audience identification that enrich the drama and characterizations complicate the film’s thriller aspect. If Edgerton wants to take the film in a different direction midway through, then he can’t circle back to his stalker thriller at the end and expect the same effect. Robyn starts as the character we identify with most, and we see early events more from her perspective than Simon’s (her isolation and suggestions of mental instability recall Rosemary’s Baby), but as the film evolves she’s sidelined. Without spoiling the details, I would say that what is revealed to have happened between Gordo and Simon back in high school shifts our loyalties, but the final scenes are less effective for the revelation.
The casting is very strong though. Rebecca Hall, who continues to be underrated, is able to portray someone who is introverted without making her into a weirdo. Jason Bateman is perfect as Simon. He channels a manipulation of others reminiscent of his Michael Bluth character into full on verbal and psychological bullying. Simon is the kind of guy who controls people without acting like a conventional “tough guy” bully, and, as Aren pointed out to me, Bateman’s performance here confirms the character type he’s been playing for years: the regular guy who is actually a bit of a jerk. Hall and Bateman are excellent in their roles, but it is Edgerton who surprises as the awkward Gordo. With his wardrobe, hair, and voice patterns he reduces his physical presence—so dominating in a film like The Great Gatsby—to an outsider who appears both broken and dangerous.
The balance that Edgerton’s characterization achieves is not matched by the narrative, which shifts the balance of audience sympathy one too many times in order to be a purely effective thriller by the end. I recognize that this is performed in an effort to arrive at some greater thematic resonance, but the film is also too thematically divided to be wholly successful in that area as well. At first The Gift explores the social obligation of gifting and how we meet and interact with acquaintances only to move into bullying and power dynamics, between adults and between children, within the workplace and within relationships. The film offers some keen observations, but, for his first feature, Edgerton can’t achieve the thematic profundity he is so clearly aiming for as well as the narrative resolution that he seems to have desired.
Even so, Edgerton, who has been an emerging acting talent to watch for a few years now, has shown capabilities in areas of filmmaking I would never have anticipated.
7 out of 10
The Gift (2015, Australia/USA)
Written and directed by Joel Edgerton; starring Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, and Joel Edgerton.