In The Gift Joel Edgerton hides his good looks and cuddly charm inside a guy for whom such qualities are a mystery and a lost hope. He plays Gordo, a security guard who moonlights as a trivia host. He has the beaten down air of someone who has been hit often by life’s cruelties and tries too hard; there’s the one hoop earring, and the expensively styled helmet hair cut with swooping lines that sits on his head like a dead rodent. His clothes, chosen to highlight the sleek, ‘with it’ bachelor image, bulge and contort around a slouchy body. His voice has the clammy limp weight of an unwanted hand on the elbow. What Gordo has to say only feeds the aura of anxiety that hovers over him like a thought bubble: “I believe the bad things in life can be a gift.” This is his idea of dinner party banter; it’s meant as a conventional wisdom but comes out like a desperate plea for understanding. The overall effect is like watching a big dumb dog awaking - blinking and bewildered - from a long sleep. But Gordo bites. Forget about his style. The danger is alive in those dark eyes. There’s real pain here and he wants you to learn all about it, and live with it too.
The Gift is Edgerton’s debut as director; he also wrote the very fine screenplay. He’s terrific and the movie is too. It’s a psychological thriller and it does what thrillers are supposed to do; create a sense of genuine dread out of those murky, unwanted thoughts that we all share about who we are and what we want. The plot is an everyday nightmare: What if you had an unwanted friend who thought you owed them and what if they wouldn’t take the hint? But Edgerton keeps putting twists to this set-up. This is a movie not so much about settling a score but about how a bad debt will always find a way to follow you home. Like the Coen Brothers often do, Edgerton here creates a ‘cancerous’ narrative: one act of transgression grows into something so toxic it wipes out all possibility that anything healthy can grow from it. Edgerton and co. rehearsed this notion in The Square (Nash Edgerton, 2008) and Felony (Matt Saville, 2014) – he wrote the latter, and co-wrote the other – but The Gift is a perfect vehicle for the idea. What’s here is a riff on classic noir: an ordinary man falling prey to larceny by letting the base desires of greed and pride direct his moral compass.
'The danger is alive in those dark eyes. There’s real pain here and he wants you to learn all about it, and live with it too.'
The setting is a Los Angeles of soft light, leafy hills and airy homes with koi ponds, where the walls are made of glass to take in the big views. This is the LA of the moneyed and the climber. Everyone we meet looks fab, healthy with their best days still to come (‘cept Gordo of course.)
As the movie opens husband and wife Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have relocated and bought a new home. He’s confident. She’s shy. He’s got a top job as a sales executive with an even better promotion in the works. She’s a work-from-home freelancer, an interior designer. But Robyn spends a lot of time with the dog and jogging rather than working: indicators that all is not well in this yuppie comfort zone. Any mention of children seems to send a shiver a pain right through her.
The plot kicks into high gear immediately. Gordo spies Simon and Robyn while they’re out shopping for their new home and he introduces himself as an old school friend of Simon’s. The moment ends in awkward promises. Later Simon tells Robyn he hardly remembers the guy. But as the movie rolls out Robyn grows curious. Her husband’s evasions, excuses and explanations all indicate that in Gordo there is a sliver of dark school yard history Simon is keen to leave mysterious. And in all this unresolved tension she is paying the price. Each little bit of plot creates a ricochet effect that has the young couple ducking for cover under a blanket of smug indifference until there is nowhere to hide from their own discomfort with each other. Bateman is very convincing in a tricky role that masks weakness with wit, charm and a harsh machismo. (I’m astonished that some critics have read Hall’s Robyn as weak-willed. She’s vulnerable sure, but she’s also courageous and tough enough to stand up to the bullies here. She also has the one thing the men lack: emotional clarity.)
Like so many movie stalkers before him Gordo is relentless and clever (think of him as a nerdy version of Robert de Niro’s Max in Martin Scorsese’s Cape Fear from 1991 and you have a sense of the chill factor Edgerton hits.) He starts off leaving little gifts and cryptic notes for the couple, turning up uninvited while Robyn is home alone and welcoming himself to dinner until finally Simon gets fed up. Only after Simon humiliates Gordo do things get nasty. No bunnies are boiled but let’s just say Gordo has an original hi-tech take on ‘home invasion’ (and like the film, a keen sense of irony if not satire!)
His skill with the actors and script aside, there is something in the way Edgerton shoots and Luke Doolan edits that rapidly establishes the feeling that something terrible can happen here. I think it has to do with how cinematographer Eduard Grau emphasises both the burnt umber elegance and the danger by swathing the interiors in lots of black and tuning LA’s sun to a twilight zone. And then there’s the camera that lurks around corners, stares through windows and observes the stillness of a room the way an uncomfortable guest might.
The Gift never feels in a hurry to get anywhere and yet I could hardly wait to see what was going to happen next. There are a couple of jump scares (earned and frightening) but in fact this is old-fashioned suspense in the best sense. I think it’s because Edgerton understands style as something not to be grafted from other movies but something essential to the material. Or, as one old timer once put it, the best place to point the camera is at the story and Edgerton and co. never miss a beat.