The Gift (Joel Edgerton, 2015)
Kids will be kids, and kids can be cruel, but karma’s a bitch so be mindful at school.
If Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut was the type of film that included a creepy schoolyard-style chant, this would fit the bill. Exploring the consequences of high school bullying, The Gift is a cautionary tale: don’t be a dick in high school. And if you were, stop being one.
A happily married couple, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), relocate to the suburbs of Los Angeles and set up house in a modern-as-hell new abode. From the outset the scene is set for a heart-racing thriller, because modern architecture = you’re screwed. Out at a furniture shop they bump into Simon’s old schoolmate, Gordo (Joel Edgerton) who is eager to stay in touch. When he starts showing up at their house uninvited and leaving various gifts at their front door, it’s unclear whether he’s a threat or just a loner. Simon attempts to cut Gordo out of their lives, and then shit gets real.
Joel Edgerton continues his superb run in the writing department, following last year’s Felony and The Rover (the latter of which he co-wrote with David Michôd). In this cat-and-mouse psychological thriller which appears to throwback to the 90s stalker genre, he delivers a solid screenplay packed full of surprises. In early scenes it seems easy to predict what will transpire, but outside of some minor plot developments, it zigzags in an unexpected direction. Character development is gradual, and viewers may find themselves continuously jumping from one side to another as events unfold. That there is no clear-cut villain or obvious protagonist that we can root for only adds to the film’s masterful complexity. The final twist is a sick one, but a clever one at that. Its effect is powerful, and is likely to stay with viewers for days afterwards.
Edgerton also directs for the first time, and already appears to have mastered the art. The tension has a slow burn, and a couple of well-placed jump scares are incredibly effective. The score by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans is chilling, and at times Edgerton uses its intensity very cleverly to trick his audience. Things aren’t as they appear; this is no 90s stalker cliché.
If directing and writing wasn’t enough, Edgerton also stars as the creepy Gordo, and any hint of his Australian persona is completely absent. He gives just the right amount of creep, while also making the audience feel a tad sympathetic. Jason Bateman is an excellent choice for the morally ambiguous Simon, because doesn’t he always play the good guy? Even when evidence suggests that he’s not the perfect specimen of man we think he is, we still can’t quite believe it. Rebecca Hall tends to exude a frosty demeanour in many of her leading roles, and this suits the character of Robyn. She is who the audience are invited to go along with, but the unreliability of her perspective creates further mystery. The trajectory of her character may not be to everyone’s liking – she is used as a pawn in a men’s game, and it leaves a funny taste.
The Gift makes a strong case for the long-lasting effects of bullying, and if it weren’t so creepy it might even make for worthwhile viewing in schools. It also challenges the notion that who you are in high school shouldn’t define you, as in some cases a leopard doesn’t change its spots. For those viewers who have tried to brush off high school transgressions as meaningless, this is a film that may strike a very nervous chord.
This review was first published at Film Blerg.