Exceeding expectations, Edgerton's directorial debut engages the mind as it makes your skin crawl.
Those let down by Joel Edgerton‘s The Gift were probably expecting another movie entirely. While the movie is totally terrifying and will make you leap ten feet off of your seat at least once, this is not the trashy slasher flick the movie’s trailer and marketing would have you believe. It’s much better than that: The Gift is a stalker suspense-thriller with a wicked edge, a thematically rich tale of revenge and domination that engages the mind as it gives you the willies. In short, this movie is legit as hell; pay no mind to the misleading TV spots and ridiculous, punny movie posters.
Edgerton, an Australian screen vet who’s also done his share of screenwriting, makes his directorial debut with The Gift, and it goes swimmingly. In addition to writing and directing, he also stars as Gordo, a socially awkward nerd type who wears ill-fitting pedophile attire. He knows Simon (Jason Bateman) from high school. Simon and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have just moved back to Simon’s hometown of Los Angeles from Chicago, and Gordo recognizes him at a department store. After a quick bit of uncomfortable small-talk, the couple find they’ve made a new friend as Gordo starts visiting their new home periodically, dropping off little presents for them as housewarming gifts, often when they aren’t home.
Gordo’s infiltration of Simon and Robyn’s life is a slow burn; it starts off as innocuously as Gordo joining them for dinner, but gradually gets out of hand as he starts popping up unexpectedly and peering through their windows. Simon’s creeped out by Gordo’s clingy behavior (though he seems to enjoy making fun of him a little too much), and as his patience grows thin and tensions rise between the old “friends,” Robyn starts to suspect that there’s more to their history than Simon’s letting on. As she slowly uncovers the truth about their past, she begins to realize Simon might not be the man she thought he was. Maybe that’s exactly what Gordo wants. Maybe not.
Like I eluded to before, Edgerton’s film doesn’t rack up a high kill count or even spill much blood. But the danger’s still there; in this story, the truth is sharper than any blade, deadlier than any elaborate Jigsaw contraption. Edgerton keeps the story’s big secret from us for a good long while, and when we finally learn the truth, he blindsides us with an even more devastating blow that’ll make your head spin. Without spoiling too much, I will say that the film bears a strong comparison to Alexandra’s Project, a 2003 psychological thriller from Australia by Rolf de Heer. If you’ve never seen it, give it a go; then you’ll catch my drift.
To talk about the movie’s primary theme would actually spoil a lot, so I’ll just say that Edgerton takes age-old ideas of male ego and explores them elegantly and thoughtfully. Marital trust and honesty colors the story as well, and Bateman and Hall cover all of these themes in one magnificently conceived kitchen scene, a scene that elevates the entire picture above what I could have ever expected. Bateman is brilliantly cast as Simon, a character whose layers get peeled back scene by scene in a steady cascade into madness. Hall and Edgerton are great too, but Bateman gets to flex muscles we rarely get to see in his typical comedic roles, and it’s a pleasant surprise. He’s got an interesting mean streak as an actor that I don’t think has been explored quite as well as Edgerton does here.
The visuals and sound design work in concert to create nail-biting suspense that doesn’t give you room to breathe. The fact that it’s a stalker story actually has an interesting effect on our experience cinematically, as we’re always scanning the frame for Gordo, constantly aware of the characters’ surroundings and the little bumps in the night (and day) that may or may not signal an impending attack. There’s one cheap scare in the whole movie, and it’s delightful. You see it coming from a mile away, but the filmmaking is so good that I guarantee at least a handful of people in the theater will drop their popcorn. This is as solid a debut as a director could hope for, and I eagerly anticipate what Edgerton will cook up next.