Joel Edgerton writes, directs and stars in this stylish suburban nightmare that sees the domestic tranquility of a middle class married couple turned upside down when an “old friend” turns up on their doorstep.
Joel Edgerton makes his directorial feature film debut with The Gift, a stylish, competently made thriller about a mysterious “old friend” uprooting the quiet existence of a middle class couple. Simon and Robyn Callum (Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall) hope a move to Los Angeles will help them leave their unspoken troubles in Chicago behind them. But when Simon’s school acquaintance Gordo (Edgerton), a man he hasn’t seen for over 20 years, says “hello” while the couple are out shopping, a chain of events threatens to derail the Callum’s American Dream.
As well as writing and directing The Gift, Edgerton also brings his obvious acting talent to the enigmatic figure of Gordo, an expressionless passive aggressive who attaches himself to the Callums like an aggravating tick. Edgerton neatly plays with his audience, acknowledging expectation in the face of convention: Simon is rightly suspicious but Robyn appears ambivalent towards Gordo, even welcoming his attempts at friendship. Yet, the façade of this overbearing stranger begins to crack when the couple discover the home he invited them to for dinner is not his own. Oh, and the dog goes missing.
Edgerton’s sense of tone and atmosphere is where The Gift really excels. There’s a sedate pacing to his steadily orchestrated plot that never feels tiresome, his camera acting like an eagle-eyed predator, moving in and out of doors and corridors, of intimate spaces and domestic safe haven. It unnerves with an ethereal, malevolent quality. He complements this sense of slow-burning dread with the social awkwardness of his character; a clinger-on with damaging secrets and a frightening unpredictability.
But Edgerton never tries to extricate the film from its generic structure or thematic straightforwardness. He utilises our expectations to ramp up tension and throws in some excellent twists but fails to leave the firm footing of well-walked ground. Some have likened the film to The Hand That Rocks The Cradle but it perhaps has more in common with Mark Romanek’s One Hour Photo or even Jonathan Kaplan’s Unlawful Entry in how domestic tranquillity is turned on its head. Yet, in a sea of suburban nightmares, The Gift drifts satisfyingly but inconsequentially on the tide.
Many would argue that the film’s finale is anything but inconsequential and they would be right. Indeed, The Gift boasts a brilliant ending that suitably unsettles but its twisted wickedness is somewhat diluted by the predictable nature of the events that lead up to it. The grey lines of each character’s moral compass also threaten to derail the ending’s effectiveness (and I’m not sure Bateman really sells it, his acting qualities better suited to comedy) while the revelation of past trauma makes the film’s opening notes feel artificial for the sake of aiding its impending conundrum.
The Gift gets a lot of things right and it shows terrific promise from Edgerton behind the camera. He confidently maintains a disconcerting mood that creeps surreptitiously under the skin, lingering there like a hard-to-reach itch. Stylistically strong (his lingering camera a predatory presence throughout) and patiently paced, he knows how to prolong the tension in preparation for the next big jump, concluding the film with the biggest and best of the them all. Nagging flaws aside, The Gift is an unsettling thriller with a killer ending.