A morality play post viewing, and a gorgeous thriller at first glance, Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut is a superb entry into the thriller canon.
When Simon (Jason Bateman) and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall) move to Simon’s home state of California for his job and a fresh start, everything seems optimistic. However the arrival of Gordo (Joel Edgerton), an old school acquaintance of Simon’s, suddenly seems to put their happy lives at risk. Gordo seems nice and friendly at first, although certainly awkward. But when a bottle of wine from him arrives at the couple’s new home, it marks the start of a very strained and strange relationship.
Edgerton has got triple caps on here, not only playing Gordo to perfection as kind but clearly off in some way, but also as director and writer. He chooses the sort of modern house that is always a haven for horror films as Simon and Robyn’s new home. It’s spacious and with huge windows that allow for plenty of light to enter, and for everything inside to be seen from the out. The interior shots also are staged in a fashion that it seems smaller, and instantly familiar. The house thus becomes a familiar and known quantity, a character in itself as Robyn spends all her time there, and the film most of its time with her.
From its opening shots in the halls of the house, as the camera patiently creeps forward and lingers on the light-filled view, the tone is set. Shots linger and leave plenty of open space in the frame, teasing the audience to watch for something unwelcome to appear there. This style helps to prime the viewer for an inevitable but incredibly satisfying slow-build. At just over 100 minutes, the film never feels glacial, but doesn’t sprint at any point. This works in its favour on so many occasions, allowing tension in scenes to build. It’s not a horror, but the few jumps within it hit like a sledgehammer.
Although Bateman’s name comes first in the credits, for almost the entire runtime this is Hall’s film, she is the primary character. The audience’s surrogate, she is the mirror for our emotions, which means we are often scared, angry, and empathetic to Gordo. Hall gives Robyn character, and her presence is so natural that it helps gloss over that she is so often reacting to things. Bateman on the other hand gives all his usual acting ability to Simon, but without any of his humour, making him so unlikeable at times, that it’s a wonder he is able to still be empathetic. One imagines Edgerton casting him at least in part because he looks the part of the villain and the exasperated, distressed victim.
Despite the familiar “middle class in trouble from weirdo” set-up, this isn’t a story about good or bad. It’s a complex film about victims and villains, that hides within the clichés of its basic premise. The film is not even ready to point out exactly who is what by its (frankly dark and nasty) conclusion. You will talk about this film, and that is its greatest gift.
The Gift (2015), directed by Joel Edgerton, is distributed in the UK by Lionsgate. Certificate 15.