Probably the best measure of how well a film engages me is the length time I can go after the film starts without checking my watch. With an average film I can hold out a half hour. If it’s mediocre I’m checking every ten minutes. Such wasn’t the case with The Gift, a film that had me so thoroughly absorbed that it was until well over an hour into it that I glanced at the time. Advertised as a cheesy horror, the film quietly defies expectations, patiently painting portraits of its lead characters, and never quite going where I was expecting it to. Every time I felt a cliche coming on, the film did a U-turn, not quite satisfying my expectations but most definitely piquing my interest. You rarely find a film this defiant in this genre, that being the psychological thriller, one that truly earns the the use of the word “psychological.”
Much of the film’s success is due to Joel Edgerton, making his directing debut, but who also wrote and starred in the film. Edgerton’s screenplay keeps the film wound up like skinny man’s coat on Chris Farley, there’s so much tension that the fabric can tear at any moment. The only thing is that the coat never rips. Edgerton knows enough what we’re expecting, and uses this knowledge to his advantage.
If you’ve seen the terrible trailer you know the setup: Jason Bateman plays Simon, husband to Robyn, played by Rebecca Hall. The couple have just moved into a beautiful new home when out of the blue they run into an old friend of Simon named Gordo, played by Edgerton. Simon at first doesn’t recognize Gordo, and quickly brushes him off, but not before giving Gordo his contact information. Life goes on, and one day while Simon is at work, Gordo shows up at the house and startles Robyn. He’s brought the couple of a bottle of wine as a gift, and quickly wins a friendship with the caring wife.
All of this seems pretty straightforward, but what creates a feeling of unease is the penetrating gaze of the camera. The film opens with long shots of the interior of the house, shots that are repeated. Edgerton often employs filming his actors behinds walls of glass and from long shots. The cinematography feels like a stranger observing the action from a hiding spot, ramping up the tension.
And then there’s Edgerton’s portrayal of Gordo that’s just not quite there. Edgerton expertly uses his beady eyes and flat facial expressions to carry the character, a benefit of writing the screenplay with himself in mind. He has a habit of staying past his visits with Robyn and Simon, not quite getting the hint. I first I wondered if he was meant to be autistic, but as layers unfolded, his behavior made more sense.
Needless to say, Gordo pushes himself into the lives of the married couple, which infuriates Simon. In a mocking face he tells Robyn that in high school they used to call Gordo “weirdo”. Going in to the film I was really not looking forward to seeing Jason Batemen. Everything about the casting seemed all wrong. But I gotta admit, he was the perfect choice for the part. Bateman has a tendency to come off as smug, one of those guys who’s just a little too tuned into himself, and Edgerton expertly uses this trait to perfection.
But the real star of the film is Hall, who plays Robyn as a good natured and welcoming wife. She feels the need to defend Gordo among her husband’s group of high executive friends. She also acts as the moral compass. As hidden secrets are revealed, she serves as a stand in for the audience.
And just what those revelations are is the what makes the film so engrossing. When Simon tells Gordo that he doesn’t want him around the house anymore, the twists start kicking into gear. The couple’s dog goes missing, their fish suddenly dead. Gordo can’t be found. Why is he so obsessed with them? I won’t dare spoil anything more.
I’ll be the first to admit, I’m not the audience for these type of films. They usually feel like they’re exploitative just to shock or gross out the viewer. I kept expecting this film to veer into this direction, and though it at times felt like it was just trying to create a tone without any thematic meat, it never quite felt exploitative. The closest thing that comes to mind is Cache, another film that deals with turmoil in a family after a stranger interrupts their lives. What really sold me was Edgerton’s willingness to focus on the characters. There was probably a good half hour where Gordo was out of the film and we just got time to spend on the troubled couple. I definitely wasn’t expecting that.
And like I said, this film passed the watch test. You’ll no doubt find yourself engrossed. The film’s ending piles on reveals that will definitely be the buzz around the internet for a while. When it was over I remarked to noone that I didn’t see that coming.