Editor’s Notes: The Gift opens in wide theatrical release today, August 7th.
Two things are readily apparent on the evidence of The Gift: the first is that first-time feature director Joel Edgerton possesses an undeniably warped storytelling perspective, and the second is that said perspective ultimately sabotages his film. No one will fault Edgerton for having ideas and attempting to subvert conventions, but I will certainly fault him for derailing his narrative with a total mess of genre screenwriting tactics.
No one will fault Edgerton for having ideas and attempting to subvert conventions.
Edgerton, who as an actor has starred in some of my favorite films of the past few years – Animal Kingdom, Warrior, Zero Dark Thirty – is more drawn to genre sensibilities than other first-time filmmakers, who more readily deliver narratives closer to their personal experience. He is, in actuality, a fairly seasoned screenwriter of psychological thrillers, specializing in tragedies of self-destruction that seem to spring ironically and organically from the characters’ everyday lives (2008’s The Square is a career highlight in that vein). The Gift fits directly into that mold, except the “organic” part was lost somewhere in the making, and what we’re left with is the sense that Edgerton is just contriving one catastrophe after another to toy with the audience.
Those contrivances, however, are purely independent of the central plot, which in terms of set-up is about as formulaic as a thriller can be. Edgerton employs the “Creepy Guy From The Past Wreaks Havoc” premise, in which said Creepy Guy serendipitously re-enters the life of a former acquaintance, who functions as the put-upon protagonist. At first we fear Creepy Guy’s general creepiness but later realize our presumed “hero” has some serious stuff to answer for. Without some precise screenplay massaging, such a premise results in a film in which the audience has no one to engage with or root for, and such is the case here, and then Edgerton’s script throws in some bonus doozies that further separate us from the on-screen material. By the end I was staring at the screen wondering how the hell this happened.
Edgerton’s visual sense is subtly effective, quiet in its tone and evocative in its composition, suggesting a sense of imbalance and dread.
The would-be protagonist in this case is Simon (Jason Bateman), who has just moved from Chicago to California with wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) to take a lucrative new job. As fate would have it, Simon reconnects with Gordo (Edgerton, in Creeper Mode) outside a posh Cali boutique. Gordo is a former high school acquaintance who seems to remember Simon clearer than Simon remembers him. They exchange pleasantries and go on their way, but later that evening, Simon and Robyn notice a gift sitting on their doorstep. It’s from Gordo, of course, and sweet as the gesture may seem, it begs the obvious question: how did this guy find out their address? The gift-giving persists, day after day, and eventually Gordo just starts…showing up. He ingratiates his way into this couple’s life; Simon is immediately alarmed while Robyn is more welcoming, if only out of pity.
These early sequences are quiet and admirably unnerving, a little on-the-nose in terms of overt eeriness but well-acted and intriguingly composed. The performances are strong across the board, with Bateman always strong when playing against type, Edgerton exuding equal parts enmity and empathy, and Hall holding onto her sanity in the middle of this unspoken psycho battle. Edgerton’s visual sense is subtly effective, quiet in its tone and evocative in its composition, suggesting a sense of imbalance and dread. If only his screenwriting were as understated and elegant. Once all the pieces are on the board, The Gift follows Edgerton’s screenplay down a rabbit hole of psycho-catastrophes that are meant to test the tensile strength of our nerves but ultimately snapped my suspension of disbelief. Focus tends to shift from one character to the next without much logic or narrative ease. In terms of theme, the only constant seems to be the titular “Gift” motif, though even that is abandoned for the film’s extended second act, only to return later, when the script deems it appropriate to use as an obvious plot device.
Similarly, there are intriguing character shades introduced, from Simon’s penchant for bullying to Robyn’s casual prescription drug addiction, but rather than enhance our understanding of each character and lead the story down a truly disturbing path, they are used as devices to produce an ironic tragedy of a conclusion that is not earned but manufactured. At first it feels like Edgerton is piling on, and later feels like he’s flirting with morally bankrupt terrain, making us feel uncomfortable in all the wrong ways. It’s unfortunate, since there are glimmers of true potential in his filmmaking, and his screenwriting track record is more promising than this particular script would indicate. I look forward to what Edgerton does next, and I look forward to forgetting her ever did The Gift.
The performances are strong across the board, but we’re left with is the sense that Edgerton is just contriving one catastrophe after another to toy with the audience. I look forward to what Edgerton does next, and I look forward to forgetting her ever did The Gift.