In The Gift, Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman play Robyn and Simon, a couple that has moved to California for a fresh start. This means Simon has a new job and Robyn is trying to put the bad memories of losing their baby and everything that followed in their life in Chicago behind her. She busies herself setting up the house, going for runs, meeting the neighbours, and experimenting with cooking. And because she is still a little fragile, and also because she doesn’t have a complete picture of the past, she welcomes the intrusions by Gordo (Joel Edgerton), a socially awkward school mate of Simon’s that they meet by chance during a shopping trip. In fairly short order Robyn is poking at the edges of her husband’s past to try and figure out the truth about the history between Gordo and Simon. Soon the tension is amped up to a distressingly uncomfortable level.
The Edgerton brothers – Joel and Nash – are on a very short list of personal filmmaking heroes for me. Nash has made some of my favourite short films over the years. He also directed The Square which is an impressive piece of feature filmmaking. And now actor/screenwriter Joel (The Great Gatsby, Animal Kingdom) has made his directorial debut in a movie that delivers a creeping sense of unease so well, I was grateful for the startling ‘boo!’ moments whenever they came, because at least then, for that moment, the tension had eased. A little.
In his WTF with Marc Maron podcast appearance star Jason Bateman suggested that The Gift was way better made than movies of this type are usually made. That is a totally accurate description of the filmmaking but there is much more to the narrative than just assured cinematography, editing, and sound design. This is a film about the consequences of one’s actions and it plays out beautifully with a symmetry between the past and the present that needs to be seen to be believed.
This may be Mr. Edgerton’s first feature film but it is far from his first time in the director’s chair. Also, I’m guessing he’s learnt a few things from observing his brother and other members of the Blue-Tongue Films collective making their own movies. Cinematographer Eduard Grau’s visual composition is another strong contributor to the sense of unease. The suggestion that there is always something lurking in the shadows of that large home that seems like way too much for two people and a beautiful dog is beautifully conveyed by the camera work.
Final Analysis: The Gift is a powerfully unsettling peek at the workings of human nature. Fair warning: don’t expect to feel very good once the film is done.
My Advice: Examples of assured filmmaking do not turn up as often as we’d like. Watch this movie. It has all the qualities of an urban horror movie but it is made so well you will feel like you’ve watched a prestige drama that only appears during awards season.