The Short- The Gift is one of those rare summer surprises that hits all of the right notes. Expertly crafted by first time director Joel Edgerton, the Zero Dark Thirty actor’s fantastic direction wratchets up tension to an incredible level then delivers with consistent thrills. By the films half way mark you will be so creeped out by not only Edgerton’s wonderful Hitchcockian plot but his fantastic performance muddles the water between misunderstood to utterly intoxicating villain.
It shouldn’t always surprise us when we find out a good actor can also write and or direct but it still seems to even after the likes of Clint Eastwood, Ben Affleck, Woody Allen, Quentin Tarantino, etc. In The Gift, Joel Edgerton (Animal Kingdom, Warrior) writes, directs and stars in the story about a couple Robyn (Rebecca Hall) and Simon (Jason Bateman) who relocates to Los Angeles after Simon gets a new job. While shopping for new furniture for their brand new beautiful house they run in to a man from Simon’s past, the socially awkward Gordo (Edgerton) who after overhearing the couple’s new address likes to drop by and give the couple presents. After one too many intrusions Gordo seems to cross the line enough for Simon to not so kindly ask Gordo to stop dropping in on his wife. The Gift works well on a lot of front especially Edgerton’s tense script and excellent pacing but also on the performances. From the beginning we get the idea that Robyn has had her struggles and Hall gives an excellent performance and is the films lead as she takes a gentler approach to Gordo trying to understand his relationship with Simon. The other two leads are just as good with Bateman exiting his comedic roles to play a character we have seen in real life and in film before. Simon is a bully, he is a bad guy who will lie, and cheat his way to not only earn his wife’s trust but as a way to get a huge promotion. Bateman plays it smoothly, he plays that jerk in everyone’s life who was a bully when he was young and grew up into an even bigger bully. We get this even from the earliest moments of the film, what occurred between Simon and Gordo is not revealed until one of the later moments of the film. As for Edgerton’s Gordo, you can’t argue that from the beginning Gordo’s motives are odd, and you can’t argue that he is stuck right inbetween creepy and just very socially awkward but Edgerton’s performance is so strong that you will argue whether the reasons for Gordo’s revenge are justified even if what he does (or doesn’t do) is abhorrent and shocking.
You can’t talk about this film without talking about its excessive middle act jump scares, especially following a few altercations or inciting incidents that by the second act have Robyn as freaked out as the audience is. Hall’s character is one of the main reasons audience will be sweating, as her character spends a lot of the movie looking over her shoulder even as an innocent bystander in the middle of something much uglier. Edgerton does a beautiful job early on of not paying off obvious scare moments so when the scares come they are fast and furious and somewhat shocking. In fact, only movies like The Conjuring, The Babadook, and It Follows have more consistent moments of dread and left me scared so frequently with still so much time left to go in the film. Edgerton does such a wonderful job of providing the audience with tension whether it’s the decision to not score certain scenes or just a damn good job of pacing that we actually saw a number of people exiting the theater with about an hour to go. When I quickly asked the ladies walking out of the theater why they were leaving one responded “I can’t do this for 2 hours”, the type of reactions a filmmaker dreams of and its reactions like that, those have studios lined up around the block to hire certain directors. (Please see the meteoric rise of The Conjuring director James Wan) The Gift is just about the most thrilling film we have seen in 2015 so far, it’s not quite a horror movie since it’s plot is based on revenge but it will give those not expecting so many scares to run for the exits and those more enthusiastic horror fans (Like me) will be jumping for joy.
Edgerton might be a first time director but his style feels like it was molded over many years of writing and directing, the already fantastic actor who has a major career ahead of him has added his name into the fray of excellent first time directors with an unlimited ceiling. As happy as I was to see The Gift unravel into a film Alfred Hitchcock would be proud of I am even more excited to see what this director will do next.