Suspense aids one of the summer’s biggest surprises in Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut The Gift, a strong in-home thriller that uses crisp cinematography and a familiar, often too familiar, premise to its credit. We all wonder similar questions when adulthood hits us, working a few jobs, and you log into social media and see a post from a long-lost friend at the top of your news-feed.
‘I wonder whatever happened to him/her.’ This movie answers that question, in stunning clarity. It’s scary how close it feels.
Edgerton, set to appear in next month’s Black Mass, and also of Warrior, The Great Gatsby, and Exodus, notably, takes a stab at switching behind the camera, immersing himself in this story and his supporting character ‘Gordo,’ a slightly odd, but seemingly good-natured neighbor of former classmate Simon (Jason Bateman) and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall). As Gordo begins giving very expensive, personal gifts to the couple, Simon’s behavior gets stranger and stranger, causing a rift between he and Robyn. Robyn has some past trauma and is home alone all day, and Gordo certainly likes to stop by. It’s very possible that Simon and Gordo’s past is a bit more detailed than either lets on.
As stated in the intro of this review, suspense is your friend. In a horror, in a comedy, in a thriller, it’s the build-up of scenes and set-pieces that create the feeling of unease in the environment. Many jump-scare films fail at this because of constant deflation or constant showing of the villain so we become too familiar with him. Here, the suspense is tasteful, and the film refuses to give in to pick the pace up slightly. Parts of the run-time do feel a bit like a drag, but it’s done in order to preserve the feel and tone of the thriller elements. Wide-Angle shots slowly pan down halls and around corners, small noises are amplified for effect, and the house itself is very open, bright, and filled with large glass walls that make the outside very visible. Gordo tends to make himself known, and it makes him more creepy for it.
It’s Edgerton who steals the show, both with his steady-handed, sure-paced direction, and with his subdued performance in the defining role of this film. Much of the film’s affect is to force you to feel uneasy about his growing attachment to the main couple, building suspense mixed with an important plot device related to Rebecca Hall’s character that shouldn’t be spoiled. She’s vulnerable, and the unease Gordo brings certainly affects her psyche. As her unease builds and begins to crush her, the film’s ability to become completely riveting over lengthy shots of her walking around the house, checking out a noise, or other normal thriller/horror cliches result in some of the most effective small-scale jump scares possible. There’s only a few of them, but they are immensely tasteful.
Bateman’s performance is possibly the best we’ve seen from him, and his normal comedic aloofness is now mixed with the underlying current of how trustworthy he is. As the story unfolds, his side and Gordo’s side become muddled, and without a sense of right and wrong, Bateman begins to shine in an angrier, grittier role than we’re used to seeing him play. Who’s really to blame, the bully or the bullied who pursues nasty revenge?