In the last decade, Australian actor Joel Edgerton has emerged as a sharp talent, crafting fine performances with each outing on screen – but his latest feature has exposed him as a surprising and skillful multi-tool player. The Gift is coming to theaters as Edgerton’s directorial debut, and it’s a fine, tension-filled, intelligent thriller from an exciting emerging filmmaker.
An intimate, small-scale drama that is primarily set within the property limits of a beautiful Los Angeles house, The Gift follows a smart, delicately crafted narrative that morphs in fascinating fashion as the plot plays out. The story centers on Robyn (Rebecca Hall) and Simon (Jason Bateman), a happy young couple who move to L.A. from Chicago when a new job opportunity opens up for Simon. It’s while shopping to furnish their new home that they wind up bumping into Gordo (Edgerton), a shy, nervous oddball who used to go to school with Simon.
That’s when things start to get tense. Gordo begins to not only leave special gifts for the couple on their doorstep, but also regularly shows up at the house in the middle of the day to see if anyone is around. Robyn believes that he’s harmless, but Simon gets creeped out far quicker, and after one particularly awkward evening, it’s requested that Gordo not come around anymore. Of course, this is far from the end of the story, as Gordo doesn’t exactly just leave them alone, leading to a series of surprising psychological thrills and twists.
Simple as this may seem, it’s truthfully anything but, and Joel Edgerton’s script pulls off some fantastic and skillful acrobatics. The film isn’t just driven by compounding plot events, but really evolves through our ever-changing perceptions of who the lead characters in the story really are. The script is regularly uncovering hints about the past and revealing secrets that help the audience understand more about Robyn, Simon and Gordo, but what’s impressive is how each of these puzzle pieces shakes up the game and keeps The Gift unpredictable. There are most definitely points where you think you have it all figured out (you probably have some theories right now), but I can promise you that you really don’t.
What allows everything to click together is the fact that Edgerton has a sharp eye for detail – both in his writing and directing style. He’s not just dropping little puzzle pieces, but instead specifically placing them and then directing the audience’s attention toward them. In this sense, he has a great approach towards exposition, as none of the big revelations feel awkwardly dropped in to move the story forward. It’s so well done that you really want to immediately rewatch it, knowing that there are surely references, nods and details that seemed innocuous at first glance but are actually absolutely vital in retrospect.
Given Edgerton’s background, it’s little surprise that The Gift is a very performance-driven film, but praise is still deserved both for casting selections and the individual portrayals of the leads. The audience sees most of the movie play out from Robyn’s perspective, and Rebecca Hall delivers a fantastically nuanced turn that not only requires a level of determination as she investigates secrets that are being withheld from her, but also cageyness as she hides some details about herself as well. Jason Bateman is perfectly cast as Simon, as his dry comedic sensibilities are wonderfully morphed by the characterization to become caustic and scathing at key moments. And, naturally, Edgerton is perfect in the role he wrote for himself, and while it’s actually a shame that the movie doesn’t feature more of him, he makes Gordo anything but a routine horror character, and gives him fantastic layers and dimensions.
Edgerton shows great skill in crafting a dramatic and intricate narrative, but the film does have some pacing issues. In order to hit certain beats, a part of the nature of the story being told is that plot events unfold over a surprisingly long timeline, and the negative side effect is that certain portions of the movie feel too drawn out (which is counterintuitive when it comes to crafting a tight drama). It will never lose your attention, but there are some lulls.
There’s a clear Alfred Hitchcock/Roman Polanski vibe that flows through the veins of The Gift, and it’s a wonderful throwback that never feels like an imitation. It’s not a film of flash and spectacle – and is, in fact, bloodless – but it still provides fantastic thrills for summer movie seekers.