The Gift (2015)

(Breaks out in heartfelt applause). Bravo, Joel Edgerton…bravo. Now THIS is how you announce yourself to The World as a serious filmmaker, your first time out of the gate. I’ve always known Edgerton The Actor from ‘tough guy’ roles in solid films like ‘Animal Kingdom’ (2010), ‘The Thing’ (2011) and ‘Exodus: Gods and Kings’ (2014). I knew he’d dabbled in Writing as well, attached to 2014’s ‘The Rover’, with a ‘Story By’ credit. But this was his first Rodeo Ride as Director…and damn!!…this man has a future on either side of the camera! Based on this tension-laden First Time Out, the dude knows his craft and has a vision to put behind it. As Writer/ Producer/ Director/ Star, this is clearly a $5 000 000 ‘passion project’ for him and he treats the material (and the audience) with noticeable respect.
The Story introduces us to ‘Simon’ (Jason Bateman) and ‘Robyn’ (Rebecca Hall), a yuppyish 30-something married couple as they move into a large new house in a posh neighborhood outside of Los Angeles, near where ‘Simon’ grew up. In the first couple days, they are approached in a department store by an old high-school classmate of ‘Simon’s; a somewhat shy-seeming and awkward guy named ‘Gordon’ (Joel Edgerton). Loose plans are made to meet up and catch up. It’s during this impromptu dinner (stemming from ‘Gordo’s abrupt and not-entirely-welcome appearance on their new property) that things start to seem…’off’ about the ex-soldier. ‘Simon’ is immediately on-guard and unthrilled about the unwanted attention of the mysterious former acquaintance, and sets out to distance ‘Gordon’ from them. Things don’t go quite as planned, as soon they start finding wrapped presents being left on their front step, accompanied by a red envelope (containing innocent and seemingly well-meaning cards signed with Happy Faces). As ‘Simon’ and ‘Robyn’ individually start looking into what ‘Gordo’s agenda may actually be, more and more key information trickles out…and soon not all is as it seems.
Right off the bat, I have to just come out and say: My girlfriend and I thought this film was great. We’d heard some positive buzz, which got us curious, but we didn’t go ape-shit digging up review after review on it, to try and preserve any surprises that may have been in store. What we did hear, however, was surprisingly encouraging and we were motivated to catch this one on The Big Screen, to give it it’s due while we could. I’m glad we did!
I love it when I walk out of a theatre physically numbed and intellectually-titillated by whatever film I had just witnessed…and THIS one definitely falls into THAT category! Edgerton has captured some SERIOUS tension here, both on The Page and on The Screen. Right from the ‘get-go’, you can feel it. SOMETHING ‘dark’ is just bubbling under the surface of the narrative. The instant ‘Gordo’ enters their life, something sinister wakes up in the story.
Speaking of Story, I do have to mention that when it came to the script, I applaud Edgerton’s choice to seemingly give the audience the ‘benefit of the doubt’, where their intelligence is concerned. Not EVERYTHING is spelled out for us in BIG BOLD LETTERS. Sometimes he doles out key info in the peripherals of a scene. A character says or does something that just sorta seems outta place, but you don’t know why. Your attention isn’t manipulated toward it, it’s just there for you to notice. It was refreshing to be treated with a little respect, as a Paying Audience Member.
A BIG part of the tension (in my opinion) is fueled by some extremely ‘patient’ camera work and editing. Edgerton has his story take its time by injecting long, steady shots that are content to hold on a scene as it plays out. There’s no lightning-fast, Michael Bay-style edits to be seen here, designed solely to numb your mind into submission and distraction (if you don’t lapse into a seizure first!). The shots often hold for a second or two longer than you’d expect before they cut away, which lent to my eyes searching the screen for whatever else I might be missing…what creepy detail does Edgerton want us to notice…and why. Sometimes there was nothing…but sometimes there was ‘something’. If someone put a gun to my head (please don’t), and asked me to compare Edgerton’s visual style to someone else in Hollywood, I would automatically blurt out “David Fincher!”. Several times, I thought that if Fincher’s name was to pop up in the end credits as Director…that would seem wholly appropriate. And I say this as a serious compliment to both filmmakers. I love much of Fincher’s work (‘Se7en’, ‘Fight Club’, ‘Panic Room’ etc), due in large part to his unique and very polished visual style. If Joel Edgerton was to one day say that Fincher was a visual inspiration for ‘The Gift’…I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest.
Complimenting the sure-handed visuals is cool use of musical score. In this case, it’s not so much a structured, theme-like soundtrack as it is strategic use of creepy tones. Sure, there IS music present, but it’s the use of high and low end tones that stands out in my mind as a key element that sure helped get the disconcerting ‘flavor’ of the film across.
The Acting is fantastic. Jason Bateman (‘Horrible Bosses’) is an actor that MOST people automatically associate with comedic roles (which, in my opinion, he excels at)…but there’s nothing funny about his portrayal of ‘Simon’. Sure, there’s initially a charisma about the character, but when the shit hits the fan, ‘Simon’ manifests a certain ‘gravity’ about him as he deals with the bizarre and threatening situation he finds he and his wife in. Bateman owned the role and fully embraced the ‘gray’ middle-ground of the character. Hat’s off to him! Rebecca Hall (‘Iron Man 3’) is also very good, with her unconventional looks (ie realistic) giving her something like ‘relateability’. I believed the character, and also found it refreshing that, despite some of her own past demons, she pushed forward in her search for The Truth in a way that made sense. As good as those two are, it has to be said that Writer / Producer/ Director / Star Joel Edgerton stole the muthafuckin show with his creepy yet somehow sympathetic turn as ‘Gordon Mosely’. This dude got me uncomfortably tingly every time he was on-screen! The physical transformation Edgerton dove into also did wonders to ‘sell’ ‘Gordo’ to us, especially the dark brown eyes (Edgerton’s are blue) and almost red hair (Edgerton has brown hair). The proof that Edgerton fully believed in the character he’d written is plainly evident in how much ‘flesh’ he was able to put on ‘Gordo’ as he directed himself ‘in scene’, while simultaneously giving us surprisingly little back-story about him (this did add to the overall mystery), and what it is that led to the mechanics of what’s happening. There was almost something ‘Joker in The Dark Knight’ about him, with the way background information, or lack thereof, was handled. When all is said and done, the strange, unpredictable dynamic that forms between these three characters is the fuel that effortlessly propels the intriguing and uncomfortable story along.
All in all, ‘The Gift’ is exactly that…a sweet present from a budding first-time director who wants to let us know that he’s landed. And ‘landed’, Joel Edgerton has! This is a true suspense film that has been written and crafted with care, respect and ambition. It’s constructed so well that we found ourselves pulled right into the sordid, uncomfortable little tale of ‘reaping what you sow’ with no resistance or ridicule. We were along for the whole 108 minute ride, and what a ride it was as it galloped toward a ‘punch you in the gut’ ending. No bullshit…I felt numb as we drove home, while my girlfriend and I found ourselves openly (and with deserved admiration) dissecting impactful aspects of the film we’d just witnessed. As similar residual feelings go, I would have to say that, off the top of my head,’The Gift’ reminded me of ‘Se7en’ (1995), ‘What Lies Beneath’ (2000) (for some reason) and, more recently, ‘Nightcrawler’ (2014), in just how the end result left me feeling blindsided yet impressed by the unexpected directions the stories bravely went in. I WAS curious about Edgerton’s talent behind the camera…NOW I’m genuinely interested in seeing what he’ll do next. I like him as an actor but, if like Ben Affleck, he’s got some serious directing chops tucked away, let them out and let them run free! ‘Mad Max: Fury Road’ may be my favorite Cinema Spectacle of 2015, but this may be the most impressive dramatic suspense film to hit the scene this year, in my opinion. Also in my opinion…YOU should see ‘The Gift’! It’s easily worth your time and attention, and deserves both from you. You won’t regret it!

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