Aussie actor Joel Edgerton creates a kooky mixture of thoughtful psychodrama and cheesy horror in this interesting examination of the ghosts that haunt us from high school
Starring: Jason Bateman, Joel Edgerton, Rebecca Hall
Directed by: Joel Edgerton
Running time: 108 minutes
MPAA Rating: Restricted
By Katherine Monk
High school never ends. It just gets psychoanalyzed as we try to sort out the defining moments of our lives, wondering why events that happened years — even decades — ago still push us to the frayed edges of insecurity.
It’s a sad fact, and one that’s probably better to embrace than deny, especially in the context of The Gift, Australian actor Joel Edgerton’s debut as writer-director.
A grilled-cheese sandwich of a thriller, The Gift slaps a slice of Jason Bateman in the middle of a white bread story and throws him in the skillet until he turns golden brown and starts to melt.
An individually wrapped piece of processed manhood, Bateman plays Simon, a typical leading man with a pretty wife named Robyn (Rebecca Hall), a surging career in a successful startup and a beautiful mid-century home overlooking the city.
Simon and Robyn seem like an enviable couple. But even in the first few frames, shot in the empty house they are about to occupy, director Edgerton instills a quiet creepiness.
In the slow pans of the open spaces shot in full daylight, Edgerton conjures a ghostlike presence, partly because the camera seems to stalk the two in silence, and partly because the rooms are so empty and wide, we can’t help but fill up the gaping spaces with our own imagination.
It’s familiar horror territory: A happy and promising couple move into the their dream house, get the dream job, and live a nightmare ever after.
The lingering deja-vu is both a good thing, and a bad thing, because it sets up expectation about what’s to come. We know something bad is probably going to happen. The only question is whether it will be blood seeping through the walls, a paranormal force disemboweling the family dog, or a killer in a hockey mask crashing through the floor-to-ceiling windows with an axe.
But who wants to be a plot spoiler in a bunny-boiler?
The denouement is more than half the fun in this film, even though Edgerton’s whole style seems aimed at draining all joy from the frame.
It doesn’t matter how happy the surroundings should be, or how brightly lit the scenery may be. Everything in this film feels haunted.
One of the eerier scenes actually happens in an upscale boutique, a store designed to make you feel safe and happy, but Edgerton exploits this subconscious assumption about the space to introduce the character of Gordon — or “Gordo” — played by the director himself.
He makes a creepy first impression, largely because he tells Simon they went to school together, and Simon has no recollection of a Gordon. The awkward moment lingers, and that’s when the hook really sinks in for the viewer, because we’ve all been there.
We’ve all had regrettable social moments where we can’t remember a name, or a face or a previous meeting, and suddenly, there’s a sense of shared culpability.
Edgerton exploits it to great use, but there are times when it all feels a touch too exploitative — and maybe a little too heavy-handed.
Gordo has a habit of popping up outside plate glass windows, leaving gifts for Simon and Robyn, and permeating the frame with a generic stalker vibe.
But every time he seems to cross the line into psycho territory, the plot offers him a reprieve. One minute he seems like a loner without friends, but then he invites Simon and Robyn to his palatial suburban home filled with happy family pictures and we breathe a sigh of relief because he’s clearly been a success in the real world.
A nice house and swanky clothes can validate a human being in the eyes of others, and watching Robyn and Simon move back and forth on the whole ‘Is Gordo a psycho?’ question is where we, too, board the bus as viewers.
He certainly feels a little off-balance, but Edgerton eventually starts shifting the fulcrum beneath us, forcing us to take a second look at our handsome couple standing centre-frame.
This is where Bateman’s performance really deserves credit because watching him react to Gordo’s constant presence is where the movie finds its crunchiest moments. And even though the director often overplays these scenes, causing them to land with a comic thud, Bateman finds enough dimensions to his character to finesse the drama and leave us wondering.
In the end, we’re not entirely surprised by the big secret, but we’re still satisfied with the results, making The Gift a pretty decent offering.