Joel Edgerton doesn’t really keep a high profile. No one’s writing second-person narrative GQ writeups about him, he will never be trending on Twitter, he’s (so far) managed to escape being caught on camera making offensive statements, because he’s unlikely to be on camera much at all. He exists in this strange temporal phase of being too well-known to be “that guy”, but not well-known enough to grace magazine covers. (Not in America anyway, Australia’s a different story.) Unlike many of his co-stars, he’s managed to become a public figure without adopting a public persona. This allows him the extra energy and time needed to work on the craft of storytelling. It doesn’t mean he’s not aware these public personas exist, which is also apparent as he subverts audience expectations in The Gift.
The Gift, also written, directed, and produced by Edgerton, tells the story of Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), a young well-off couple who have recently moved to Los Angeles to start a new life together. While out shopping, they meet Gordon (Edgerton), a former high school classmate of Simon’s who seems just a bit socially off. Gordon inserts himself into their lives, first through inappropriately expensive gifts, then a series of unexpected visits to Robyn while Simon is at work. After Simon confronts Gordon, Robyn begins to fear for her safety in the house, and begins to investigate the connection between her husband and the man she fears is stalking her.
I mentioned public persona above, because the pre-existing ideas Jason Bateman brings to the table are part of what makes The Gift work. The trailer lets you know that Simon isn’t what he appears to be, but that’s inaccurate. He is exactly what he appears to be; a narcissistic, controlling yuppie. He plays mind games with his wife and he constructs elaborate lies to others and himself to get what he wants. In short, he’s exactly like Michael Bluth, or any of the characters fitting the archetype you call Jason Bateman to play. (Remember that time someone made a comedy where he puts his semen in Jennifer Aniston’s womb without her knowing?) While these roles are normally played for laughs and Bateman portrays these characters as harmless neutered wimps, Edgerton’s script and direction are more interested in assessing the darkness behind these kinds of people. The Gift asks what happens when these Bateman-esque simpering blowhards gain a modicum of power and confidence — usually at the expense of others.
While Edgerton and Bateman work well together, and the story premise itself is effective, there are still a few issues that keep the film from being as compelling as it wants to be. The dialogue is awkward and clunky, and that “We called him Gordo The Weirdo” clip from the trailers doesn’t sound any less ridiculous in context. This kind of unnatural exposition fills the film, and it dulls down scenes that feel like they have so much potential. Every line is delivered with a sprinkling of “wonder if that’ll come up again later?” genre-awareness. Beyond that, strange direction choices abound, such as the completely earnest decision to introduce a crucial conflict using the sitcom cut where a character says they will never do a thing, and then a hard cut to them doing that thing. A strange amount of time is dedicated to a subplot regarding Rebecca’s pill addiction in some attempt to emphasize or perhaps legitimize her gaslighting, but it makes little sense. By the time this is dealt with, it’s already clear where the focus needs to be.
However, for the kind of person who enjoys assessing all aspects of filmmaking and breaking down shots, The Gift offers a fun study in depth of field, screen geometry, and set design. The film opens with Simon and Robyn moving into the great glass house (the kind from which one should not throw stones), while a realtor prattles on about it’s “open floor plan”. This open plan offers Edgerton no shortage of vantage points and framing opportunities to play with, constantly separating characters through windows, door frames, and openings in walls. Edgerton uses this direction to create a sense of voyeurism, and gradually shrinks that open floor plan by placing Robyn in more and more cramped spaces such as hallways and showers. Even the handful of scenes outside of the house are obsessed with windows and furnishings, and we first meet Gordo staring through the window of what is very deliberately a home furnishings store. “I love this style of architecture,” Gordo says when he studies the house from outside, and I believe it’s true that Edgerton does. He’s done his homework, and through his direction, the cinematography of the film tells a story all on its own. The secondary story is about materialism, wealth, and class, and is honestly more enthralling than the one being told on screen.
The Gift doesn’t work on all levels, but what it accomplishes it does very well. Joel Edgerton feels comfortable and natural assuming the directorial role. Although the film feels very familiar, his mastery of storytelling elevates it beyond the trappings of its genre. The Gift is a solid rookie outing for Edgerton, who seems to understand the capabilities of visual storytelling better than many of his peers. This is what happens when you don’t have to worry about being actually famous.
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