Wednesday, August 19, 2015

'The Gift' review

Sometimes it's good for a movie to subvert your expectations. In a culture where we predict everything in advance, it can be good to have a movie that comes out of nowhere to surprise us. I have to admit that I was never all that excited for Joel Edgerton's directorial debut, The Gift, which hit theaters last week. The trailers were decent, but the film seemed like the kind of late-summer B-movie that wouldn't really amount to much. Yet as The Gift's release drew nearer, the buzz began to build and I was suddenly fascinated by this thriller that was drawing rave reviews from critics and fans alike. Could it possibly live up to the hype? The answer to that question is a simple yes. Beyond the last-minute twist, The Gift is a glossy and compelling piece of filmmaking that benefits from a nail-biting sense of suspense and a trio of fantastic performances with actors cast to perfection. The Gift doesn't need the gore or the shocks of other thrillers- this one succeeds with its story and characters and it does so in a way that is absolutely brilliant.


A psychological thriller with a killer twist, The Gift is the story of Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall), a young married couple who move to California after Simon receives a big promotion. With a beautiful house and a new start, everything seems to be going fine. But one day, a chance encounter between Simon and an old friend will change everything. When shopping for furniture, Simon runs into Gordon "Gordo" Mosley, who he attended high school with. He vaguely remembers Gordo and moves on. However, Gordo continues to show up time and time again, leaving random gifts at their doorstep and showing up at their house in the middle of the day. What is Gordo's true intention? Is he a friend, or is there something more sinister at play? And is Simon as great as he's believed to be?

Joel Edgerton is best known for playing brash, arrogant, sleazy characters who get their comeuppance in the end. Exodus: Gods and Kings, The Great Gatsby and from the looks of it, Black Mass, are prime examples of films where Edgerton has played that kind of character. Jason Bateman, on the other hand, is better known for his likable, if prickly everymen. Arrested Development and Horrible Bosses are great illustrations of Bateman's traditional style, and it's how I best knew him. The genius of The Gift is that it flips the casting completely. I won't discuss how, in order to avoid spoilers, but I will tell you this- you will question who you sympathize with several times throughout this movie.

While Alison Tolman, PJ Byrne and Busy Philipps all have small roles in The Gift, this film belongs to Bateman, Edgerton and Rebecca Hall, who is the true emotional center of the movie. The marketing makes you think that the film will revolve around Bateman, but in all honesty, we follow Hall's emotionally damaged Robyn for a good chunk of the film. This is her story, told completely from her point-of-view. And Hall does a very good job with the material, making Robyn a likable character. Bateman is fantastic as well, creating a dynamic character that shifts and changes throughout the entire running time. Simon is a brilliantly designed, fully developed character and I applaud what Edgerton did with what could have been something much less difficult.

The best performance comes from Edgerton, who seriously deserves some Oscar attention for this role. It's hard to make a stalker sympathetic, but it's exactly what Edgerton does. And it's mostly thanks to his closely measured writing and directing, which allows the audience to consider Gordo's actions and think about whether or not they're right. This isn't a simple drama about a stalker and a family- this is a complex and intricately woven film about bullying, revenge and a blurred line that makes you truly use your brain and consider these questions.

The Gift is a methodically paced film, and that's part of the brilliance of it. Edgerton never goes for anything cheap. There are only a few jump scares in this movie, and most of the jumps have absolutely nothing to do with the actual plot. Instead, Edgerton spends his time building suspense. You see Gordo and you understand how something isn't quite right with him, but you don't see what he's capable of and you don't understand his past. You meet Robyn, but you don't know what makes her character tick. And you know Simon, but do you really know him?

There is no filler in The Gift. Every slower moment is topped off by something of intrigue, something that develops the characters further. This is a psychological thriller, but most importantly, it's a character drama and a film that truly examines themes of bullying, past mistakes and the true colors of a person's character. Even though The Gift was produced by Blumhouse, the production company behind films like Sinister and Insidious (and oddly enough, Whiplash), this film could not be more different than those chillers. There is one big scare in The Gift, and if you've seen the trailers, you'll know when it's coming.

The Gift is more unsettling- it gets under your skin in creepy ways. The buildup is part of the fun and the way that the film keeps you in suspense works wonders. You know something is wrong, and every scene has a palpable sense of danger that puts you on edge. Gordo, Simon and Robyn all could snap at any moment, which brings an element of tension to the whole thing. As an audience member, you truly don't know what to expect, and the twist is one that you really can't see coming.

Something else struck me about The Gift and that was the artificiality of it. This is a film that is glossy and it very much feels like it made with the production values of a thriller about the rich and wealthy. Everything about it spells smooth and calm, when in reality, there's something darker. Unlike a bad film like Focus, The Gift uses this artificial flavoring as theme enhancement in order to show how we often get caught up by what things look like on the surface, and not what's underneath. Simon's a nice guy on the surface, but deep down, who is he really? And is Gordo as purely evil and creepy as we're led to believe?

Huge props belong to Edgerton, who really crafted something interesting here. Nobody saw this one coming when the year started, but The Gift is truly one of the most magnificent surprises of the year- a slick, low budget thriller with a lot under the surface. Bateman and Edgerton make a formidable duo and it was refreshing to see such a character-based drama in the heat of the summer action season, where character and substance comes second to flash and special effects. I can't wait to see where Edgerton goes from here, but one thing is for certain- this is a very impressive debut.

THE FINAL GRADE:  A-                                            (8.6/10)


Image Credits: Variety, Beaumont Enterprise, The Gift Movie, Coming Soon

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