Director: Joel Edgerton
Cast: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Busy Philipps, David Denman, Allison Tolman, Katie Aselton
Runtime: 1 hr 40 mins
Rating: NC-16 (Some Coarse Language)
Released By: Cathay-Keris Films
Official Website: https://www.facebook.com/GIFTmovie
Opening Day: 6 August 2015
Synopsis: When married couple Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) unexpectedly encounter Gordo (Joel Edgerton), an acquaintance from Simon's past, little do they know that their perfect lives will be thrown into a terrifying tailspin. At first, Simon doesn't recognize Gordo, but after a troubling series of uninvited encounters and mysterious gifts, a horrifying secret emerges. As Robyn learns what really happened between Simon and Gordo, she begins to question how well she knows her spouse.
‘The Gift’ is ostensibly about an upper middle-class married couple – Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) – who are terrorised by a ex-classmate of Simon’s named Gordo (Joel Edgerton) looking to settle an old score after their move from Chicago back to the former’s Los Angeles’ East Side neighbourhood. And yet, Edgerton, who also wrote the screenplay, is not just content for his psychological thriller to be just another B-grade exercise; instead, there are more than a few nasty surprises in store for an audience jaded by such run-of-the-mill genre fare, and it is Edgerton’s emphasis on character rather than empty shlock that ultimately pays off in a slow-burn but nevertheless consistently gripping mystery.
As is typical with such narratives, Simon and Robyn start off as the picture of marital bliss who are looking to move on from an episode in the recent past. Simon is starting a new job at a high-profile digital security firm, and Robyn hopes to get back to her passion as a freelance designer – but the cracks are there, especially the relics of a miscarriage. Following a seemingly serendipitous run-at a downtown furniture store, Gordo leaves a housewarming gift at their doorstep, a generosity that Robyn feels obligated to repay by inviting him over for dinner. Thing is, the gifts keep coming, and while Robyn responds by letting him in out of politeness, Simon is slightly more wary of their overly hospitable guest. His displeasure comes to a head after Gordo makes a hasty and prolonged exit no sooner after they arrive at a surprisingly posh two-storey house upon the latter's dinner invitation.
Upon a stern warning to leave them alone, strange things start happening around the house. Robyn gets the nagging sense that Gordo is watching her in the day when she is alone at home, and even starts hallucinating that he is peeping at her in the shower. The disappearance of their family dog one day further cements Simon’s suspicion that Gordo hasn’t taken too kindly to his admonition. And yet throughout the ensuing unease, Gordo never does appear in person – except in Robyn’s daydreams – leaving us wondering if it is all a red herring. Then a letter in Gordo’s signature red envelope lands in their mailbox, with a cryptic send-off to Simon to “let bygones be bygones”. Simon downplays its significance, but Robyn is convinced that Simon is hiding something.
Whereas the first act was about Gordo playing the typical psycho stalker, Edgerton reserves the second act for unravelling just who Simon is – and as you may expect, the answers are less than savoury. Peeling back the affable charm on Simon’s surface, we are led to discover someone else altogether, so much so that we are forced to re-examine our sympathies for the man in the first place, and by extension, our contempt for Gordo’s apparent sociopathic behaviour. Edgerton tells the story from Robyn’s perspective, not only because she is as much in the dark about the man she married as us, but also for the fact that, as Simon’s façade falls apart, she alone becomes the emotional core of the story and the only one we end up rooting for.
Although Robyn’s neighbour and Simon’s colleagues do pop up for a couple of scenes here and there, this is pretty much a story that stands on just three characters, and Edgerton brings Gordo back in the last act to extract payback from the person whose arrogance and apathy many years ago had set his life on an irreversible downward spiral. There is a sharp lesson here on lies, misdirections and their consequences, and instead of settling for a comfortable ending, Edgerton opts for something much more unnerving that keeps you guessing just what Gordo’s motive is all this while. At no point does he settle for conventional thrills, so those expecting a mano-a-mano between Simon and Gordo are bound to be disappointed.
Yet those looking for a fine actors’ showcase will be pleasantly surprised, for Edgerton gives plenty of room for each one of his actors to shine – including, we may add, himself. Bateman subverts his Everyman likeability as he transforms from a nice guy to a sinister bully that has no qualms ruining other people’s lives, and the actor better known for his comedic roles turns in a fine dramatic performance with heft and gravitas. Hall is his perfect complement, playing the part of the kind and vulnerable wife with watchful intelligence and quiet empathy. Edgerton is in great form himself as the creepy loner sociopath, who earns our disgust and pity in equal measure as we discover how much of a sad sack he is and what led him there in the first place.
To use its very own metaphor, ‘The Gift’ is like a present within a present whose pleasure lies not just in finding out what it truly is but also in the process of unveiling it layer after layer. That may come off as a drag for less patient audiences or those looking for late-night cable movie thrills, but those willing to accept a slow-burn psychological thriller that unfolds at its own measured pace will find much to like about this well-crafted and well-acted package. It is as assured and auspicious a debut for a first-time filmmaker as any, and Edgerton proves to be both smart and savvy as actor-writer-director in getting the best out of his actors as much as getting under his audience's skin.
(Gripping and thought-provoking in equal measure, ‘The Gift’ is a well-crafted psychological thriller that also marks a fine filmmaking debut for Joel Edgerton)
Review by Gabriel Chong