Generally speaking, directorial debuts from actors should be approached with absolute dread. Just because an actor reaches a level of fame that makes it possible to get a movie made doesn’t mean he or she really has the chops to pull it off. Thankfully, there’s no need for such concerns with ‘The Gift’, the first film by long-time actor and occasional screenwriter Joel Edgerton. He’s made a very small and controlled psychological thriller/character study that succeeds on its own terms and then slinks away before wearing out its welcome.
Jason Bateman and the always-welcome Rebecca Hall star as Simon and Robyn, a married couple who recently moved to Los Angeles following Simon’s big promotion. Their house is a big glass sign of their achievements and an open invitation for creepy stalkers. Wouldn’t ya know it, the couple gets one of those too! Edgerton slinks into the movie as Gordo, a childhood friend of Simon’s whom he hasn’t seen since his teen years. After an awkward chat in a store, Gordo finds their house and leaves a present. It’s a bit weird, but a kind enough gesture that Simon and Robyn invite Gordo over for a dinner, which prompts the gifts and visits to continue. Simon grows tired of Gordo’s constant appearances and Robyn questions why he keeps making them, gradually digging into the past to discover their shared history and some shocking truths that lead ‘The Gift’ straight into topsy-turvy thriller territory.
While Edgerton proves to be a surprisingly adept director for a first-timer, and is capable of delivering a few jumps and some unnerving visuals, ‘The Gift’ works best as a paranoid character piece. As a writer, Edgerton knows that his audience is quite familiar with a thriller narrative like this, so he delights in toying with conventions and expectations. The best trick he pulls off is that once the general three-hander dramatic scenario is set up and it’s clear that Gordo is a creep, the filmmaker starts pulling apart our supposed heroes. In a weird way, Gordo proves to be one of the most sympathetic characters in the movie with a genuinely tragic past despite his creepy ways. Meanwhile, the more we learn about the happy couple whose lives are coming apart, the more they might deserve the twisted fate they receive.
In a movie essentially defined by three roles , casting is key and Edgerton knew exactly what he was doing. Hall is fantastic in the lead as a strong yet paranoid woman whose concerns and occasional emotional instability might be rather reasonable. Edgerton wisely keeps his own performance small, never giving away too much his inner life away and letting all the things that he doesn’t say or do deliver more shivers than unnecessary overacting.
Yet the finest performance comes from Jason Bateman. At first, he seems to be doing his usual sarcastic straight man routine, but as the film wears on, the actor finds genuine malice and pain beneath his well-defined screen persona. It’s an intriguing role for actor and wouldn’t surprise me if Edgerton wrote it specifically for him given how cleverly the character subverts audiences’ expectations of Bateman. He’s excellent and hopefully enough people see the movie to give the actor a chance to expand his range. In particular, Bateman drops a smile upon first meeting Gordo that seems like his usual schtick on first viewing but is absolutely chilling once all is revealed.
Eventually, ‘The Gift’ builds toward a big, harsh twist ending like an old episode of ‘Alfred Hitchcock Presents’. While the denouement is well handled, it’s kind of a shame to see Edgerton revert back into genre rhythms after toying with them for so long. Still, the movie ends on a nasty and somewhat unexpected note that should leave an appropriately sour taste in the mouth of anyone who wants it.
‘The Gift’ doesn’t reinvent the wheel nor does it strive to be anything more than a psychological thriller with a little added character depth. The movie does exactly what it’s supposed to and is a strong enough calling card that it just might kick off a new phase in Edgerton’s career. He may have some genuine directorial chops and it will be interesting to see how he develops from here.