Joel Edgerton makes his directorial debut with The Gift, an incredibly smart psychological thriller that runs laps around audience expectations. Edgerton also wrote and stars in the movie, making him a triple threat in Hollywood. I’ll say this now: Edgerton nails all three of the jobs he’s performing in The Gift.
Not since last year’s Gone Girl (my favorite film of 2014, actually) have I been so surprised by a movie. Much like Gone Girl, The Gift embraces its pulp/genre roots, much to its benefit. Edgerton doesn’t shy away from how incredibly familiar the movie feels, and that’s because the movie’s slow burn gives way and you realize the familiarity Edgerton was selling you was a clever ruse.
The basic plot is as follows: Simon (Jason Bateman) moves back to his hometown (sort of–the movie describes it as “close to home”) with his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) because of his new job. While in town, he runs into Gordo (Edgerton), a friend from high school he claims not to recognize. But Gordo recognizes him, alright, and goes to great lengths to be his friend. Gordo leaves gifts on the couple’s doorstep, appears announced at their house during the day to talk to Robyn while Simon is at work, etc. Simon tells Robyn in high school they used to call him Gordo the Weirdo, and he grows uncomfortable with the friendship being forced upon him. It becomes increasingly obvious Simon is hiding something from the past, and he cuts off contact with Gordo. From there, the movie takes off and really begins.
The Gift allows you to think it’s a certain kind of movie, and then pulls that rug right out from underneath you. It’s a welcome change-up in the thriller genre. Edgerton plays with horror tropes as well, effectively using a few jump scares and employing a genuinely creepy horror atmosphere. But at its core, The Gift is less traditional horror and more psychological thriller. The fusion of those elements, though, creates something truly special.
One of the things The Gift uses to its great advantage is Jason Bateman. Bateman is typecast as that sarcastic, always-annoyed jerk–usually, however, that shtick is played for humorous effect. We’re on Bateman’s side, laughing at his attitude and empathizing with his plights. Edgerton knows how audiences will react to Bateman, and uses his typecast superbly. Bateman plays the same character he always does, stripped of his comedic nature. I think this connect we have with Bateman’s Simon drives the back half of the film.
Rebecca Hall nails her role as Robyn as well. We experience much of the movie through Robyn’s eyes, and she is a strong character with her own agency, a rarity for females in the thriller genre. Edgerton is a scene-stealer as Gordo the Weirdo. I’m really amazed at everything he did with the character. Gordo manages to gain our sympathy and our disgust, based solely on Edgerton’s performance.
The ending of The Gift is bound to be a divisive one. To be honest, I think it will become the subject of much analysis in the months to come as it gains more and more recognition. It’s bold, it’s controversial, and I think many will view it as a crucial mistake. I applaud Edgerton for attempting to do something here outside of the typical summer thriller norm. Like the ending or hate it, it elevates The Gift as a whole.
I couldn’t agree more that The Gift is “the strongest actor-to-director debut since Ben Affleck’s Gone Baby Gone“. Joel Edgerton has a promising career ahead of him behind the camera. The Gift was one of the best movies I’ve seen this year, and it’s one I won’t forget any time soon.
My score: A-