Actor Joel Edgerton’s debut feature as director, The Gift, is the best kind of great movie: It doesn’t announce itself as great at all. Edgerton, who also wrote the screenplay, knows he’s got the goods in his grasp, content to let his ideas slowly get under the audience’s skin and gestate, rather than ram them down our throats. Although a cursory glance at its plot (or a quick viewing of the film’s trailer) might indicate that The Gift is a run-of-the-mill stalker film, nothing could be further from the truth: Edgerton begins with a set of familiar conventions and then overturns each one scene by scene, letting his characters and themes evolve in a manner far more naturally than one might expect from a genre film, or from a summer horror movie—which of course makes it all the more terrifying.
Edgerton lays out his core situation with clarity and concision in The Gift’s opening scenes, in which his subtle, gliding camera pulls the audience into the world of married couple Simon and Robyn (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall). They’ve just moved from Chicago to the suburbs of Los Angeles, primarily for Simon’s job but also to get a new start following the emotional trauma Robyn experienced following the loss of a baby. Edgerton’s eerily still and angular compositions, in which Simon and Robyn are repeatedly framed through glass, like bugs under a microscope, create a sense of unease right from the start, implying that the couple is on shaky ground even before Simon’s old high school classmate Gordon (Edgerton) shows up. Gordon quickly insinuates himself into Simon’s and Robyn’s lives, and by the time Simon takes action to try to rid himself of the socially awkward and clingy friend, it’s far too late.
To describe much more of the plot would be to rob the viewer of one of The Gift’s many pleasures—its constant ability to surprise—but suffice it to say: Edgerton begins by hitting all of the beats familiar to fans of Fatal Attraction, Single White Female and their countless imitators, but it becomes obvious early on that he’s not going to play by their rules. When he does cull a familiar trope from other stalker movies, he repeatedly upends both the audience’s and the characters’ expectations. Yet the twists aren’t gimmicks—Edgerton isn’t merely being a contrarian, but following through on the very real, deep psychological tensions at the core of his film’s triangle. I can’t think of another recent movie that so skillfully plays with audience identification, shifting our sympathies from one character to another in a manner darkly mirroring that of the films of Jean Renoir. If, in that director’s masterpiece Rules of the Game, everyone had their reasons, here they do as well—reasons for lying, hiding, manipulating.
Renoir, but also Ingmar Bergman: The three main characters of The Gift are as compelling and complex as any one might find in such classic directors’ best features, an achievement all the more remarkable for the fact that the trio has been dropped into what is ostensibly a summer programmer. Edgerton knows that the conventional wisdom that characters need to be “likable” is nonsense. They just have to be interesting—which ironically has the byproduct of making them likable even in their darkest moments. And, as one might expect from a film directed by one of our finest working actors, the performances are razor sharp. Bateman in particular turns in the best work of his career, finally unleashing a darker side I’ve always suspected lay beneath his affable all-American veneer. Edgerton pays close attention to the supporting cast as well, filling out even the smallest roles with actors who convey fully realized personalities. Not a soul here feels arbitrarily cast, no matter how seemingly inconsequential the part.
That kind of precision informs every aspect of The Gift, in which Edgerton employs every cinematic tool at his disposal to lure the audience into the palm of his hand—and then squeeze. He immediately delivers the conventional satisfactions of his genre—with a handful of scares that had my stomach up somewhere in my throat—but he does so only to get them out of the way, to get to the business of really scaring us, not with action or violence but ideas about doubt and sacrifice—about the costs of past sins for both victims and aggressors; about whether or not we can trust those we love.
Edgerton is wrestling with big ideas here, not only psychological but social and political: The perverted sense of American striving that characterizes both Simon and Gordon is peculiarly of its moment, though as with much else in the movie Edgerton has the confidence to let this ideas rest at the margins. I fear that his subtlety, combined with the fact that he’s expressing his ideas via a stalker movie rather than an art-house drama or period piece, will cause Edgerton’s achievement to be slightly underrated and overlooked. He will just have to settle for what he’s got: a thriller that not only invites but earns comparison with the best movies in the history of the genre. The Gift will endure.
Director: Joel Edgerton
Writer: Joel Edgerton
Starring: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton
Release Date: August 7, 2015
Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble with the Truth, starring Lea Thompson and John Shea. He has written about movies for Filmmaker Magazine, Film Comment and many other publications. You can follow him on Twitter.