The Gift movie review

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Few question the greatness or narrative subterfuge of Hitchcock’s Psycho, a story seemingly about an on-the-run thief (played by Janet Leigh) morphing into a tale about a mentally unwell hotel owner with mummy issues. If we didn’t understand that Norman Bates was bona fide crazy by the time we saw him waving around a knife, in dress and wig, with a manic Joker-esque smile, looking like Jared Leto raided your grandmother’s wardrobe, a psychiatrist arrives before the final scene to spell it out crystal clear (“Norman Bates no longer exists. He only half existed in the first place…”).
But when the line between sane and insane isn’t so starkly divided, and when a troublesome character’s motivations aren’t as morally deplorable as Norm’s, we get curious anti-social loners like the protagonists in Martin Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (1976) and The King of Comedy (1982), both played with twitchy, uncomfortable flair by Robert DeNiro.
Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut The Gift, which the actor also wrote, produced and starred in, is a memorable entrant into a canon of films about people whose actions lead to discussion around what constitutes a hero or a villain (thus labels such as “anti-hero” and “anti-villain”). Edgerton’s film is morally murky thriller where familiar character archetypes have been warped by obscured back stories and uncertain motivations –stretched to the point where straight up definitions no longer apply. And where part of the horror comes from is an inability to categorise people with anything like the clarity of the Psycho shrink.
Dorky and socially awkward, in the manner of Robin Williams from One Hour Photo or the guy who used to hover around the adult section in your local video store, Edgerton is creepily effective as Gordon “Gordo” Mosely. His character’s presence works on many levels, not least as a striking symbol of middle/upper class guilt — a force to potentially destabilise the fortunes of a well-to-do couple, or at least to provide a contrast to their life of relative ease and stability.
Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have relocated from Chicago to suburban Los Angeles and moved into a schmick new home. Simon has a new high-paying corporate job and the aura of a person on the up. They are trying for a baby and have a big cute dog.
They also have Gordo, a surprise addition to their lives who, Simon at least, would prefer not to have to deal with. We first meet Gordo as he is gazing at them through the glass wall of a homewares shop; inside he sidles up to Simon and announces himself as an old friend from school. Simon and Robyn come home to a welcome gift, a bottle of wine, left on their doorstep.
The couple don’t know how Gordo got their address but don’t pay it much mind. Soon the three are sharing pasta and wine around the dinner table; Gordo, who has a habit of popping around unannounced (usually when Simon is at work) is their dinner guest. He starts talking kind of weird — about government surveillance and serving in the military — but nothing too troubling.
To divulge much more about the story would risk spoiling some of the surprises, suffice to say Edgerton envisions a rather dark take on the Seinfeldian conundrum of how to break up with a friend. By the time the offended party inevitably takes offense, the audience are uncertain what they are capable of achieving — or whether asking that question in the first place, in terms of potential retaliation or comeuppance, is a fair one.
The Gift’s familiar setup evolves into a rash of mind games, the characters not so much second guessing each other as holding back key information they either keep to themselves or share with each other — not necessarily with the audience’s knowledge.
Edgerton and Bateman are assigned the meatiest parts and each contribute performances up there with the best of their careers. Their impact on the story is very different, but both performances need to project (and master to a tee) their characters as people who are rattled but headstrong –or at least far from pushovers. Rebecca Hall, whose character takes on a detective-like role, is also excellent. Like all the primary players, her character is increasingly fleshed out and nuanced.
Edgerton’s crowning achievement is to explore a fear infinitely more frightening than a creepy looking guy appearing at your doorstep. Such a sight might startle us for a moment, but the now triple-threat filmmaker (top script, direction and acting) has greater ambitions. The film’s psychological weight taps into universal scary things by questioning prosaic situations such as who we choose to spend our time with and how we come to perceive them.
If the marketing materials suggest a killer-at-the-door thriller in the vein of something like Fatal Attraction, Edgerton successfully ventures into darker and more complicated territory. He brings with him top-notch collaborators and bang-on production values including editing by Australian Luke Doolan (Animal Kingdom, The Square) and cinematography by Eduard Grau (Buried, A Single Man). The Gift is not as it seems and what may lead to a subverting of expectations provides one of the film’s biggest kicks, so watch the spoiler-splotched trailer at your peril.
(Note from editor: The Gift trailer is not embedded or linked to in this review at the request of the critic).

One response to “The Gift movie review

  1. Your reviews are always insightful and make it easier for me to decide if I will see a movie. This one i will see – and never again that hideous spectacle the Melbourne Cup!

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