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The Gift | Review

Keep on Giving: Edgerton’s Debut a Surprisingly Adept Thriller

The Gift PosterActor Joel Edgerton makes his feature directorial debut with The Gift, an intelligent, enjoyably entertaining thriller arriving just like the eponymous item it’s named for, especially considering the lowly regarded timeframe of its premiere and a horrendously miscalculated theatrical trailer. A throwback to the R rated adult themed items from the late 80s and early 90s, recalling any number of home invasion, interloper thrillers from Fatal Attraction to The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Edgerton plays with familiar dynamics and expectations to create a cautionary karmic tale equally rooted in topical issues. Strong characterizations and a trio of compelling performances makes this one of the most pleasantly startling mainstream oriented thrillers to come along in quite some time, and delivers an emotional resonance absent from Edgerton’s previous screenplays for Australian neo-noirs The Square (directed by his brother, Nash Edgerton) and 2013’s cut and dry Felony (2013).

Chicagoans Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have recently relocated to a magnificent home in a quiet neighborhood in the hills of East Los Angeles. He’s been climbing the white collar ladder, but we learn Robyn is grieving a recent miscarriage and a subsequent addiction to prescription pills. Shopping for supplies one day, they run into Gordo (Joel Edgerton), a high school classmate of Simon’s, though he doesn’t seem to recall just exactly who this stranger is. Showing up on their doorstep bearing multiple gifts, Gordo manages to make a likeable impression on Robyn, who isn’t bothered by his social awkwardness. But as their forced interactions continue, Simon becomes increasingly unnerved and overtly aggressive. Robyn begins to realize something unseemly happened between the two men when they were boys, something Simon refuses to speak about.

Edgerton wastes precious little time thrusting us into the dramatic framework, spinning its tight knit web with passing details about Simon and Robyn, one of those picture perfect couples seemingly having conquered all of life’s significant challenges. A very different portrait evolves as the film wears on, and even as we’re convinced we know where this is all going, Edgerton manages to keep us uncomfortable, both in how he convincingly portrays the complicated dance of adult social etiquette, as well as when we enter the film’s more paranoid zone of alternating allegiance between its increasingly questionable constructions of protagonist vs. antagonist.

Rebecca Hall, finally given the chance to play a more empathetic (though resoundingly weak-willed) presence, becomes the conduit for the audience, and manages to convey The Gift’s surprisingly substantial emotional core as she discovers despicable traits about her partner that were never really tucked away in the first place. Bateman is a bit of nifty casting, generally the surly comic relief revamping his customarily snarky comic asides for a supremely unlikeable angle here. As the simultaneously frail and ominous Gordo, Edgerton is often unnerving and unpredictable, even if sometimes questionably styled.

Refreshing, in the sense it’s a genre thriller finally packaged for adults even if it is predicated on events from the characters’ adolescence, The Gift is still very much rooted in more recent ruminations on the detrimental impact of bullying, a theme sometimes seemingly too predominant thanks to the current cultural climate. A variety of smash cuts and jump starts result in the film’s greatest off kilter moments, like benign moments such as packaging tape on a box or more customary scares like a nightmare shower sequence or a dog clobbering a window. Supporting characters are generally concisely utilized, including a nicely utilized Allison Tolman, and yes, that’s Katie Aselton popping up in a brief scene to deliver key information.

But Edgerton realizes the power and potential of ambiguity, and even if he doesn’t take full advantage of certain insinuations, often providing only the slightest amounts of provocation, the end result is quite transparent. Surely, some of this scenario sometimes seems laughable, particularly as the very pregnant Hall becomes more inclined to discuss personal matters it would seem more logical to grill her sneaky husband about, but then, this also provides the backbone of the film’s motif concerning how people evolve or stay innately the same as they age. We can’t exactly trust Gordo or Simon, but it’s clear one of them certainly hasn’t changed.

Edgerton’s decision to reference Simon’s fear of primates eventually becomes crystal clear since he’s terrified that he’s never managed to evolve beyond his basic, self-serving interests. And as The Gift succinctly demonstrates, it doesn’t take much to poison someone’s mind or reputation, but at the same time, every cloud has its silver lining.


Los Angeles based Nicholas Bell is's Chief Film Critic and covers film festivals such as Sundance, Berlin, Cannes and TIFF. He is part of the critic groups on Rotten Tomatoes, The Los Angeles Film Critics Association (LAFCA), the Online Film Critics Society (OFCS) and GALECA. His top 3 for 2021: France (Bruno Dumont), Passing (Rebecca Hall) and Nightmare Alley (Guillermo Del Toro). He was a jury member at the 2019 Cleveland International Film Festival.

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