Joel Edgerton has already proved himself indispensable to Australian cinema, particularly with Animal Kingdom and The Rover, both films with an atmosphere and scope much larger than The Gift. For his directorial debut, Edgerton, who plays Gordon “Gordo” Moseley, brings a much more insular focus in both character and environment and it helps him deliver a taut, effectively tense psychological thriller with an unnerving sense of paranoia and fear that really zones in on the psychological aspect of this genre film – something a lot of films dubbed ‘psychological thrillers’ don’t actually do well.
Mystery is central to the story Edgerton tells, as Simon (Jason Bateman) and his wife Robyn Callen (Rebecca Hall) move into a quiet, idyllic neighbourhood in suburban L.A. Neighbours are friendly but keep their distance, everything seeming completely normal until a chance encounter links Simon up with Gordo, an old classmate with an understated and quiet, yet eager approach.
It’s Edgerton who really stays central to the film, even when he is off-screen, portraying Gordo with a highly nuanced and progressive air of terror, knowing when to balance out the general creepiness with a distracting and irresistible display of innocence. Watching him keep Simon and Robyn on their toes as he becomes increasingly intense captures what a true thriller is all about and delivers the audience a refreshing villain, pushing against the mediocrity that plagues films of a similar genre in the 21st century.
As it turns out, Gordo is a bit too obsessed with Simon and his new wife, sending them unsolicited gifts and coming across as that presumptuous friend who barely waits for an invitation to get closer to the couple. Bateman brings a solid performance as Simon, cautioning his wife against feeling sorry for Gordo and mirroring the nuance Edgerton brings by occasionally bringing the bully back out of his character and adding to the moral and psychological complexity of which the film thrives upon.
Two strong male leads isn’t all The Gift is about though, and Hall often steals the show from both as the only real innocent protagonist here, struggling against her character’s own anxiety in coming to grips with the reality that her husband is slowly starting to revert back to his old days in the face of a stalker-type situation. Navigating the past nature of Simon and Gordo’s antagonistic relationship, Hall brings an emotional heft that fits brilliantly within the subtle power play between Simon and Gordo.
Stylish direction keeps things fresh, Edgerton and cinematographer Eduard Grau successfully delivering a vintage, quiet horror vibe to complement the evocative screenplay. Playing with a genuine sense of isolation and fear, despite actually being isolated in the everyday sunshine of L.A, Edgerton keeps the mood burning slow, knowing that the audience will scare themselves with their own imaginations for more effectively than any amount of jump scares – although there a few of those, brilliantly timed for maximum seat-jumping.
A genuinely sinister twist helps wrap The Gift up tightly, Edgerton willing to take the risk of an open-end to add one last ultra-dramatic effect to this character-driven work. While the brunt of the movie was all about the complex interplay between three characters and three very different perspectives, the end is all about Gordo’s mind game with Simon and the theme of disturbingly poetic revenge.
Review Score: FOUR AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Running time: 108 minutes
The Gift will screen in Australian cinemas from Thursday 27th August