Joel Edgerton’s Directorial Debut ‘The Gift’ Shows Psychological Thriller Promise

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CHICAGO – Of the various genres of films, the psychological thriller is one of my holy grails. A story that highlights the psychology of its characters and their wobbly emotional states, few modern filmmakers dare to compete with the masterminds – Alfred Hitchcock, Stanley Kubrick, David Lynch and more recently David Fincher and Darren Aronofsky – or fail when trying to.

Kubrick’s “Eyes Wide Shut,” Lynch’s “Blue Velvet” and Hitchcock’s “Vertigo” – along with films like “The Silence of the Lambs,” “Se7en,” “Jacob’s Ladder,” “Pi,” “The Shining,” “Memento,” “The Sixth Sense,” “Misery” and “The Usual Suspects” – do the genre true justice. Fast forward to today, though, when we ask ourselves: Who is Joel Edgerton?

Joel Edgerton in The Gift
Joel Edgerton in “The Gift”.
Image credit: Matt Kennedy, STX Productions

He’s an Australian actor – yes, an actor and not a writer or director (until now) – who you may or may not know. He’s on the poster for 2011’s “Warrior” with Tom Hardy and you might have seen him in 2014’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings” and 2013’s “The Great Gatsby”. Edgerton has won and been nominated for a bunch of Australian film awards from the Australian Film Institute and the Film Critics Circle of Australia. But here in the U.S., he’s lesser known or perhaps unknown.

In addition to co-starring as the film’s psychologically traumatized villain alongside Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall, “The Gift” is Edgerton’s directorial debut. While it can’t compare to Hitchcock and Kubrick, it’s a promising one that blows out of the water failed psychological thriller directors like M. Night Shyamalan who flopped with 2006’s “Lady in the Water” and again with 2008’s “The Happening”.

Like many in the genre do, “The Gift” starts out safely. A young, married, happy couple has money and a great house. Jason Bateman as Simon has a lucrative job and Rebecca Hall as Robyn is a talented designer (that’s really never explored). While Simon is at work, Robyn has plenty of time for fitness and to enjoy the spoils of their well-to-do life. The “Pleasantville”-like setup, though, tells you things will only go awry.

Rebecca Hall, Jason Bateman and Joel Edgerton in The Gift
Rebecca Hall, Jason Bateman and Joel Edgerton in “The Gift”.
Image credit: Matt Kennedy, STX Productions

They shift innocently because of a chance encounter at a store between Simon and a high school friend, Gordo (played by filmmaker Joel Edgerton). The best decision Edgerton makes is to use the complex emotions of suspicion, panic, remorse and rage as the film’s true primary villain rather than his Gordo the “Weirdo” character himself.

Playing to gender stereotypes where the “more emotional” woman smells fishiness while the “more logical” man thinks things are fine, Robyn becomes increasingly suspicious of Gordo’s gift giving. While you may or may not think Gordo’s “gifts left at the doorstep” are appropriate, Simon and Robyn do question his motives and give the story a sense of build-up believability.

While many films invest too heavily in special effects or seemingly don’t have one, a story is actually there and it does dig deep down a rabble hole. I did figure out the climax about 15 minutes before it’s revealed, but even if you do see it coming, it’s satisfying because you can be appropriately disgusted by the desperation of a tortured soul.

Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall in The Gift
Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall in “The Gift”.
Image credit: Matt Kennedy, STX Productions

“The Gift” ultimately highlights the danger of bullying and how damaging it can be especially in childhood – not physical abuse but how planting a false idea can spread like cancer.

More than just a popcorn flick, the film keeps itself tense while also posing substantial questions. Gordo is lonely, has been dealt bad cards again and again, he’s quiet and is super awkward. You know something’s wrong with him, but does he deserve it? If life treated him better and if he received help, could he have been a good guy? And Simon not being the upstanding husband he seems, is our good guy a bit of our bad guy and is our bad guy a bit of a good guy grasping at straws to deal with his past?

The lines are blurred and you waiver between which one to root for. You could feel sorry for Gordo and think Simon too nonchalantly writes off his past demons without properly dealing with them.

I also must mention one high-profile producer on this film: Jason Blum and his Blumhouse Productions. While he started out revolutionizing the horror genre with 2007’s “Paranormal Activity” and 2012’s “Sinister,” many of Blum’s other horror films have disappointingly been more of the same ranging from “Oculus,” “Ouija,” “Jessabelle” and more.

Rebecca Hall in The Gift
Rebecca Hall in “The Gift”.
Image credit: Matt Kennedy, STX Productions

Blum’s contributions to 2014’s non-horror film “Whiplash,” though, didn’t ruin it and his involvement in 2015’s non-horror film “The Gift” also doesn’t destroy it. Yes, that’s a compliment to Blum’s diversification when I’ve been otherwise criticizing his horror repeats that have done nothing more than make money while muddying the genre.

While films often take the dramatic to extremes, many of us could relate to how the character trio in “The Gift” gets stuck in this web of lies and deceit. Personally I’d have tried to shut things down even sooner – especially when the traumatized-as-a-child gift giver fills the married couple’s coy pond with fish without their permission. Obviously that’s a creepy gesture that steps over a gift giver’s bounds.

It’s initially odd to think that Gordo’s character would spend so much time being seemingly nice only to try to heal his mysterious childhood wounds. But, of course, he’s got a hidden agenda. His therapeutic kind-turned-crazy actions blend a confusing line between feeling empathy for the man he hates while also enjoying being a menace to his life.

“The Gift” teeters between predictable but believable plot progression while also managing to surprise you with twists you didn’t see coming. While it won’t go down in history as a modern-day Hitchcockian masterpiece, it’ll be viewed well above the rubbish many other wannabe psychological thriller directors have subjected us to instead.

“The Gift” stars Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Allison Tolman, Tim Griffin, Busy Philipps, Adam Lazarre-White, Mirrah Foulkes and Nash Edgerton from writer and director Joel Edgerton. The film, which has a running time of 108 minutes and opened on Aug. 7, 2015, is rated “R” for language.

HollywoodChicago.com publisher Adam Fendelman

By ADAM FENDELMAN
Publisher
HollywoodChicago.com
adam@hollywoodchicago.com

© 2015 Adam Fendelman, HollywoodChicago.com LLC

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