D: Joel Edgerton / 103m
Cast: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Allison Tolman, Tim Griffin, Busy Philipps, Adam Lazarre-White, Beau Knapp, Wendell Pierce, Mirrah Foulkes, Nash Edgerton, David Denman, Katie Aselton
You move to California from Chicago to start afresh. You try and put behind you the pain of a miscarriage. If you’re the husband you work hard and press for that promotion at work that you really deserve. If you’re the wife you stay at home and redesign the new home you’re living in, because interior design is what you do. And if you’re someone who used to know the husband years ago in high school then you suddenly show up out of the blue and start making things awkward.
Such is the basic set-up of Joel Edgerton’s first foray into feature directing – he also wrote the script – a dark, psychological thriller that asks that old chestnut once more: what do you do when your sins come back to haunt you? The sins in question belong to Simon Callum (Bateman). He’s smart, he’s determined, he’s likeable – in short, he’s too good to be true. And so it proves, with past behaviours having been retained twenty-five years on, and his moral centre somewhat askew. When Simon is approached by a man who claims to know him (but who he doesn’t recognise), his offhand, dismissive attitude is covered by a thin veneer of acceptance. But when a bottle of wine appears on Simon and his wife Robyn’s doorstep, with a note from the same man – whose name is Gordon Mosley (Edgerton) – Simon is made uncomfortable. And this being a thriller, the audience knows that Simon is going to feel a lot more uncomfortable before the movie’s conclusion.
But Edgerton the writer pulls a bit of a switch, and instead of having Gordon (known as Gordo) continue to make Simon’s life uncomfortable, the old high school classmate starts dropping in unexpectedly when Simon isn’t around. Robyn (Hall) is polite, and always invites him in, and even though she’s a little bit unnerved by his presence, she’s also sympathetic towards him, suspecting that his life hasn’t turned out as well as Simon’s has. She lets him set up their new TV, and increasingly seems pleased to see him when he visits. Simon is less than happy with this, and wants nothing more to do with Gordo, even though he can’t specify why.
An invitation to dinner at Gordo’s house doesn’t go well, however, and Simon uses the opportunity to end their renewed relationship. But when an incident at their house sends Simon back to Gordo’s home, he learns something alarming: it isn’t Gordo’s home at all, but belongs to someone he works for. The police become involved, briefly, but without any evidence of a crime committed against the Callums, they’re powerless to intervene. Later, Gordo sends an apology, but Simon is angry, while Robyn is more accepting. This is the beginning of a rift that will grow between them, but right then, Simon’s bid for promotion is going well, and he feels able to control everything that’s happening around them.
Of course, this proves foolish, as Gordo continues to manipulate their lives from afar. Robyn falls pregnant, and later learns some disturbing information about Simon and Gordo’s time in high school. She delves deeper, and what she finds out throws everything into sharp relief, and places her marriage in jeopardy. And all the while, Gordo hovers in the background, a shadow figure that may or may not be seeking justice for wrongs done to him in the past, or a malevolent force of the present, with undisclosed reasons for targetting Simon.
The Gift is a movie that tells its fairly straightforward tale with a small amount of visual flair, and a deeper understanding of untrammelled arrogance. Simon is a creep, something that’s made clear almost from the start, and his character is off-putting and insincere. It makes feeling sorry for him virtually impossible, and as the audience learns more and more about him, and his true colours shine through (however blackly), any potential sympathy is washed away in a tide of unhealthy revelations. Bateman makes the most of Simon’s more despicable justifications for his behaviour, and revels in playing the movie’s real bad guy, but it’s a role that doesn’t allow for much development or depth. And by the end, when the full extent of what’s been going on is revealed, the viewer’s main reaction is likely to be that of ennui rather than satisfaction.
As the harried, semi-stalked Robyn, Hall is her usual intelligent but emotionally removed self, peeling back the layers of Robyn’s past with more dexterity than Bateman is allowed to do, but ultimately falling short of showing us why Robyn is with Simon in the first place (or why she stays with him until events give her no choice). Hall is also let down by the script’s decision to introduce a drug problem for Robyn, and then have it resolved within fifteen minutes. Other subplots are either forgotten or abandoned, with the disappearance of the Callum’s dog, Mr Bojangles – potentially an occurrence that could ensure a great deal of suspense – again resolved far too quickly and far too easily. Likewise the matter of Gordo’s using his boss’s house; viewers may not be surprised by this development, but they might well be surprised at the way in which it’s not used to further the plot and is just abandoned along with so much else that acts as filler for the movie’s first half.
As the drama mutates uneasily into melodrama – Simon assaults Gordo and warns him off, Simon’s promotion suffers a serious setback – the tension increases, but Edgerton the director doesn’t have the experience to really make an audience sit on the edge of their seat or hold their breath in anxious anticipation. Some scenes fall flatter than a pancake, while others maintain a sense of unease that is undone by the use of too little light. There are a handful of dream sequences that seem out of place, but Edgerton integrates them with the narrative more effectively than some other (more experienced) directors would have done, but there’s still the lingering feeling that even though he’s done his homework, the writer/director/star could have done with a little bit of assistance in pulling it all together.
Rating: 6/10 – better than most psychological thrillers (but only just), The Gift should more accurately be called The Gifts, or even Several Gifts Left on a Doorstep; Edgerton does his best to explore notions of guilt and retribution but fails to fully engage with his audience, leading to a movie that promises a lot but only delivers a fraction of what’s needed to make it completely successful.