Smart, well-acted, and very Fincher, The Gift is a surprisingly great directorial debut for Joel Edgerton.
“Kids are honest,” declares Simon (Jason Bateman) when his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) hears that Simon’s old High School classmate, Gordo (Joel Edgerton), used to be called “Gordo The Weirdo”. Simon and Gordo haven’t seen each other since High School, but are reunited when Simon and Robyn move back to California where Simon grew up and bump into each other at a furniture store. Gordo is eager to reconnect, sending them gifts, turning up at their house unannounced for social calls, and inviting them around for dinner, which, combined with his rather secretive and awkward personality, makes him come off as a little creepy. Robyn seems to believe that Gordo has good intentions, Simon thinks he hasn’t changed since High School and is determined to get rid of him. A little too determined.
Therein lies the conflict of The Gift, Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut from a script also written by himself. The thing about The Gift is that, despite being sold as a pure psychological thriller about a creepy stranger who won’t leave this nice couple alone, the film is more a drama about whether people really do change and the rarely considered after-effects of High School. It has thriller elements, the occasional well-done jump scare and it eventually moves itself into an effective and slightly trashy payoff, but it’s mostly a quiet and often-ambiguous drama, and that’s very much to its benefit.
It’s a film that takes great pleasure in wrong-footing audience expectations at every turn. Take the first half an hour or so of the movie. In films like these, the audience is trained to distrust the stranger, to question their motives and wait for the moment where the facade drops and their true creepy and/or violent nature is revealed. Yet, cleverly, Gordo avoids being the obvious ticking time-bomb. Whilst there is the occasional moment where the film loudly signals that “maybe Simon’s right, this guy is weird”, Edgerton doesn’t play him as some kind of obvious monster. He’s clearly got some kind of chip on his shoulder and he is more than a little too forward, but there’s also a genuineness to him that seems very much at odds with Simon’s insistence that he’s a crazed weirdo.
But that spectre of doubt is there, and that’s all it takes to cause one to become suspicious of him. It’s there in his frequent visits, it’s there in certain actions that occur during the film, and it’s there in Simon’s constant insistence that he and Robyn need to get shot of him. Yet Simon’s constant, and I do mean constant, putting-down and insulting and complaining about Gordo itself carries a “methinks the lady doth protest too much” vibe to it. He has valid concerns about Gordo, but his non-stop barrage of negativity and pure hatred of the guy leads one to wonder if he’s truly being on the up-and-up with us all too. It might be nothing, but the doubt is now there and doubt is all that one needs to start the questioning.
In the vaguest way possible – because touching on this constitutes spoiling the film’s gradual reveal, despite it being one of the key themes of the film – I can tell you that the doubt is more than justified on both sides. The great thing about The Gift is that it doesn’t just wrong-foot its audience for the sake of it, it’s always going somewhere with its ambiguity. Constantly switching the reveal of who the true villain is until the whole idea of a “villain” is revealed to be unimportant. This is where Jason Bateman really excels. His put-upon straight man routine, the one that he’s cultivated throughout most of his career, is slowly stripped away to reveal something far uglier at his centre and he nails it completely. It’s like a certain similar performance from last year’s Before I Go To Sleep but without the hamminess that that actor, who I’m not mentioning because that’s a spoiler, eventually descended into.
And in the middle of all of this is Robyn. In theory, she should be getting the short shrift of the film, but in actuality she ends up being the central character throughout all of this. Robyn, despite being a very talented designer and business-person in her own right, spends a lot of the film as the somewhat passive supporting wife. But, over time, she slowly develops her own agency, starts questioning her husband, starts investigating on her own, and starts standing up for herself. The presence of Gordo is almost like a catalyst for her to actively question her place in life and whether this is what she actually wants. This could come off as patronising or forced, but Rebecca Hall is exactly the kind of person to imbue all of this with the naturalness and depth that it requires.
Those are the various pieces, and Edgerton brings them all together in a slowly tightening coil, carefully bringing up the levels of unease and tension rather than ratcheting them up. He has a very clean and distant filmmaking style that feels very reminiscent of David Fincher, very appropriate considering that the film likes to contrast these sorts of clear, open, vulnerable yet still inviting spaces with trashy and occasionally nasty payoffs and moments. It all works, though, building and building to a climax that, whilst masterfully done in a pure visceral moment, initially rubbed me up the wrong way but is growing on me the more I think about it. It doesn’t acquiesce to audience demands and expectations, instead remaining resolutely committed to its own singular path. Even when it seems like it’s giving the audience what they expect, it’s really being done for its own ends.
Perhaps that’s why The Gift has stuck with me. Rather than succumb to the obvious tropes and outcomes of this set-up, the film instead blazes its own trail, zigs when it should zag, and is focussed on telling the story it wants to tell. It revels in ambiguity but it’s ambiguity with a purpose, and its deft handling of those themes of doubt and the after-effects of High School is supported at every turn by three excellent lead performances and strong direction. It’s an excellent directorial debut from Edgerton, and one of the best American thrillers to come along in a long while. Give it a shot, even if you’re normally averse to this kind of thing, you’ll be surprised.