The Gift is Australian actor Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut — he also wrote, produced, and stars in it — and it bodes well for Edgerton’s directing career. A psychological thriller, The Gift is efficiently and quite memorably chilling, at least for the first half.
Simon Callen (Jason Bateman), a security analyst, and his wife Robyn (Rebecca Hall), an interior designer, are a good-looking, affluent couple who’ve just moved to suburban Los Angeles, where, in the film’s opening scene, they take possession of a spacious, modernist home in the Hollywood Hills. Out buying furniture, they run into Gordon ‘Gordo’ Moseley (Edgerton), a former schoolmate of Simon’s. Overhearing their delivery address, Gordo leaves an expensive bottle of wine on the couple’s doorstep as a housewarming gift. Simon and Robyn sense the inappropriate extravagance of the gesture, without feeling able to decline it.
The remainder of the plot is hard to describe without giving its secrets away, but The Gift’s portrait of a bourgeois marriage brought undone by the past owes a clear debt to Michael Haneke’s 2005 film Caché. Unlike Haneke, though, Edgerton shows little interest in implicating his audience in the problems that unfold: our relationship to what happens on screen is bound by the conventions of the thriller genre, in which we side with the vulnerable character, Robyn.
Hall’s performance is the film’s key strength. She has a face that is difficult to forget (I remember first seeing her, brittle, blonde, and lonely, in Channel 4’s outstanding adaption of David Peace’s Red Riding novels) and here, with her hair cut boyishly short, both her beauty and her actorly intelligence are put to good use. Robyn is something of the trophy wife, and she is aware of it; everyone comments on how ‘lucky’ Simon is, like she were first prize at a raffle. Restless and lonely in her suburban keep, she flounders between her husband’s dislike for ‘Gordo the Weirdo’ and her sympathy for a fellow outsider who keeps showing up at the door. Kindness overrides her better judgement — kindness not just to Gordo but to Simon, who, she slowly realises (though you suspect she has always known) is far from an ideal husband. Bateman’s own performance is adequate, but it doesn’t shine like Hall’s does.
Robyn has a back story, and her own reasons to be discontented, so it’s a shame that the film makes her less of a person and more of a pawn the longer it goes on. It gradually becomes clear that Robyn, far more than the house, is the property that Simon and Gordo are really fighting over, and the more that Edgerton’s screenplay explains about the relationship between the two men, the less interesting it becomes. Again, Edgerton departs from Haneke (and from Hitchcock, another obvious influence) in this tendency to psychologise, rather than trust in the deeper disturbance he can create by withholding reason from us.
As it is, the film is most effective when the characters’ motivations remain unclear, and when the plot and the camera keep us within the confines of the Callen’s house. Working with cinematographer Eduard Grau and editor Luke Doolan (who also worked on Animal Kingdom, in which Edgerton starred, and on The Square, a 2008 crime film which Edgerton wrote), Edgerton uses the architectural tension between hard-edged modernism and domestic comfort to the film’s advantage. Floor-to-ceiling glass windows and sliding doors make the house permeable: its inhabitants can be seen, its threshold can be shattered. There is never a establishing shot to give us a proper sense of the house’s layout, exterior, or the streetscape it sits in, and shorn of this context, we are properly confused, never quite knowing where one doorway or dark concrete hallway might lead. The unease that Edgerton makes from this disorientation is palpable — in a screening room of jaded film critics, I heard at least one person scream.
As Gordo, Edgerton does well at portraying someone whose obsequious generosity masks (at least for a while) a terrible rage. I think we’ve all met this kind of person, and they are always unsettling, pushing hard upon both our selfishness and our guilt – which is why it’s disappointing to see the character devolve into a standard-issue psychopath.
Even with its flaws, The Gift is a far stronger piece of writing than Edgerton’s last screenplay, the suburban Sydney cop film Felony (2014). In setting and tone it’s also a long way from the average Australian screen debut, which is a nice surprise — no larrikins or small-town quirks here. If Edgerton continues to improve at this rate, then his next film might very well be excellent. As it is, The Gift is worth watching, for its failures as much as for its achievements.