A movie like The Gift saves its greatest tricks for flummoxing those of us who think we’ve figured it out. It sets up the clichés and lets us form an opinion, then just then we have it cornered, it takes a hard right turn into something we didn’t expect at all. That it succeeds brilliantly as a psychological thriller on its own merits speaks volumes about writer/director/star Joel Edgerton’s potential. That it can so with such remarkable polish suggests that – with one film – he’s already gone a long way towards realizing it.
And again, it starts by fooling us into thinking we know what’s coming. It dutifully rolls out the Fatal Attraction scenario, as a seemingly perfect couple attract a stalker who seems just a little too interested in becoming part of their lives. Edgerton plays the stalker, a sad sack named Gordo who looks constantly braced for life’s next kick in the teeth. The couple are Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), recently moved back to Simon’s hometown in an attempt to start a new chapter in their lives. Gordo spots them at a local store and recognizes Simon from high school. Soon enough, he’s showing up with wine and presents, inserting himself into their lives in vaguely creepy ways, and inferring some kind of long-ago wrongdoing that may or may not end in a full-bore bunny boil.
And then, just when that notion runs out of gas, something shifts. Delving too deeply into it would give the game away, and The Gift is the kind of movie for which spoiler alerts were made. Suffice it to say that the relationship between Simon and Gordo isn’t what it seems, and the deeper we dig, the more fascinating and surprising the story becomes. That works in part because Robyn serves as our catalyst: asking the questions and following the clues as to why this weird little man has suddenly shown up on their doorstep, and giving us a sympathetic figure to help us look at these two guys with some objectivity.
The answers she finds speak to much more than the standard-issue potboiler that The Gift might have been in less assured hands. Edgerton engages in hand waving only towards the very end, when the reveal depends a little too much on chance to escape without some head-scratching. But the build-up is so strong and the emotional resonance so powerful that the mild logical leap simply fails to matter. We’re hooked by then, and Edgerton pays off the slow development with the assurance of a far more experienced director.
Indeed, the whole film stands as a testament to his storytelling skills more than anything else. This isn’t a movie where he can just point the camera at the actors and let them do the work. We’re in full-bore Hitchcock territory here, where the director has to guide our perceptions and hit the beats of the story in order for us to feel the punch. Edgerton does so not just consistency, but with an organic wholeness that only a fundamental understanding of the medium can bring. Nothing comes out of left field here. There’s no sudden lurches in tone or character that speak to contrivance or laziness.
And yet The Gift constantly finds new ways to sneak up on us: not by cheating or finding shortcuts, but by committing to its scenario and thinking through each step. It respects the development of its three main characters, aiming for consistent personalities and psychological honesty rather than pawns to be moved around according to the dictates of the plot. In the process, it breaks through the mold of a simple thriller – even a good one – and starts getting at some very meaty subjects. The tensions in a marriage, for instance, or the psychological impact of bullying. Edgerton helps his own cause on that front by knowing when he has to answer our questions and when he can leave us to speculate, then has the discipline to leave the darker corners of his tale up to our imagination.
As a result, The Gift not only vaults to the ranks of the best films of the year, but announces the arrival of a mature and skillful filmmaker. Edgerton has already proven himself a chameleonic actor, and I confess that I tend to look at endeavors like these with skepticism because of that. But The Gift is simply too good to dismiss as a vanity project, and too assured to suggest that the man behind it is going to stop with just one film. Even if he does, he’s still delivered a gorgeous little gem that reminds us what real filmmaking is supposed to be.