THE GIFT. Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Allison Tolman. Directed by Joel Edgerton. 108 minutes. M (Mature themes, violence and coarse language).
Aussie export Joel Edgerton teamed up with low-budget horror producer Jason Blum to bring you one of the year’s most surprising films. Despite its schlocky premise – the past comes back to haunt a school bully – the tense characterisation and unbearable mounting dread make this an impressive film, and a terrific calling card for an Australian auteur in the making.
The opening shots prowl through an empty home, open plan with grand windows, and cinematographer Eduard Grau makes every move feel predatory and motivated. Couple Simon and Robin are being shown around the property, having moved to California to ‘start fresh’ – they make the purchase and begin to furnish their abode.
At a homewares store, Simon is approached by ‘Gordo’, a schoolmate whom he can barely recognise. They chat briefly, before parting ways with the slimmest of pretences that they should ‘catch up soon’. The next day however, Robin goes to the front door to find a bottle of wine and a note from Gordo, and when they reluctantly invite him over for dinner to say thank you, the past and the present begin to collide in unpleasant ways. As Gordo’s gifts continue to arrive at the house, a wedge is driven between the couple as Simon’s apparent innocence comes into question.
Having both written and directed the film, Joel Edgerton keeps his narrative tightly focused on the three leads. It’s a low-budget film, with one key location and few cast members, but it doesn’t feel constrained. His staging makes terrific use of the house’s vast expanses of glass, overseen by production designer Richard Sherman, and the family always feels watched and vulnerable. He also launches one of the largest jump scares this reviewer had ever experienced in a theatre (and from the other leaps I witnessed, my fellow viewers would agree).
Simon is played by Jason Bateman at first as an everyman and loving husband, but he removes his layers carefully to reveal an arrogance and prickliness. His performance is pitched as a dichotomy from Gordo, who you can clearly imagine as a target for his confident and assured bullying. When Simon’s life begins to unravel, the audience’s pity is tinged with disgust at what he may have done in the past, but it’s Bateman’s talent which keeps the character relatable to the end.
Edgerton, playing Gordo in his own film, is a terrifying enigma. Any moment of clarity or insight offered to the audience is later called into doubt – he is as unpredictable as he is dangerous. Framed as both antagonist and a pitiable victim, Edgerton walks a fine line to enable his co-stars to score on their big emotional beats.
As the third vertex of their triangle, Rebecca Hall plays Robin with a subtle empathy for Gordo, which prolongs their contact with him and thus their distress. She makes this illogical choice feel properly motivated, and with her childless and career-less character the target for others’ sympathy, her emotional suffocation engulfs the viewers.
When the plot accelerates, many moments feel more thematically intense than the M rating would suggest, and were it not for this potential for frightening youths, the film could operate as the most effective piece of anti-bullying propaganda available to schools.
Joel Edgerton didn’t aim too high for his debut effort, but it fills me with national pride to state my opinion that the end result is far better than it has any right to be, or needed to be. Not for the faint of heart, this is a thrilling meditation on how the past can catch up with you.
Callum Ryan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.
Out August 27.