So there’s a movie in theatres you should see. It’s called The Gift and if you haven’t seen it you might not want to read much about it. It’s a small little thriller directed by and featuring Joel Edgerton and starring Jason Bateman. It’s a grim film that grows increasingly bleak and dark. It’s filled with moral ugliness and a decidedly nasty plot twist. If any of that sounds appealing, just make a mental note and see the film at some point. It’s a thriller, talking about it can only lessen the effect of seeing it.
Personally I read a very vague review of the film and then noted it just the way I suggested. So after watching the earliest showing of Inside Out, I went to see The Gift. It was certainly a tonal shift.
It’s the kind of movie I would characterize as small scale. It concerns a limited and focussed number of characters, it takes place in a limited and humdrum setting, and it’s mainly concerned with low stakes. Or big stakes for the few main characters, but only them. It’s almost always refreshing to take in a film with these sorts of limited stakes and concerns during the height of the summer.
It starts with an effective slow burn. There’s the immediate promise of something creepy coming down the pipe when Jason Bateman and his wife move into a new home. New homes are certainly a perennial favourite among horror plots, however this is a surprisingly well thought out trope in The Gift. It’s not so much that they’ve moved into a new home, it’s that they’ve moved closer to Jason Bateman’s home growing up, and closer to the people he grew up around. Those first eerie forewarnings don’t appear until Jason Bateman and his wife go shopping for furniture. When they do there’s an immediately notable figure watching them from behind the window.
The Gift earned immediate points in my book for how this scene played out. I don’t think it’s overly revealing to say that the mysterious figure politely if awkwardly, introduces himself. He’s a guy Jason Bateman knew from high school. It’s this introduction that sets the events of the film in motion. This guy (Joel Edgerton) starts to intrude more and more into the protagonists’ lives, leaving them little gifts and notes and stopping by at inopportune times for tea. It’s a nicely mild start to the film, one that grows and evolves, which is generally what you want from a horror film.
At first, Joel Edgerton just seems subtly wrong and unusual. Like he’s a bit of an odd character, one lacking a firm grasp on the dynamics of social interaction. However, at the beginning, there’s nothing obviously malicious about his actions. This allows for that great sort of tonal heightening that works so well in horror. As his actions shift and our understanding of the situation shifts, the movie gets more and more tense, ratcheting up the tension and building to an unbearable height. An unbearable tension that resolves itself and gently starts to slacken surprisingly early in the film.
Which is perhaps where The Gift gets most interesting. It sort of stops being a thriller part way through. It’s still fairly frightening and gripping, and regains some of the tension it lets out with a time jump and narrated montage, but it’s not really trying to be a thriller at this point. Or at least it doesn’t seem like it is. Instead the film continues to unfurl and elaborate on the details of the situation portrayed. It’s an interesting choice, one I’m still not entirely confident I like. It’s not without it’s inherent problems, but it’s also not without its obvious benefits.
The chief problem is obviously the loss of tension. It’s not like the movie shifts so radically in the latter half that it couldn’t have benefitted from some of the glorious tension it had spent so long creating. It’s still nominally a thriller, and its grimmest scenes come towards the end. However the time jump and partial deflation are important for other reasons. It makes sense as far as the film’s plot and thematics are concerned. It allows the film to tell almost two different stories. The thing is I’m not entirely sure these two portions couldn’t have been amalgamated. Time passing is important, but it’s also an idea already inherent in the plot. I think it ultimately works in the film, despite being a rather unusual and possibly unnecessary structural risk.
It’s definitely the latter portion of the film that’s more interesting. It’s dark and filled with fairly unflinching examinations of moral ugliness. It becomes rather like a revenge film without any one character that fully deserves your sympathy. This leg of the film may be less tense, but in many ways it’s also less conventional and more disturbing, both of which are wins as far as I’m concerned. It helps set the film apart from other unsettling thrillers. I’m still not entirely convinced there wouldn’t have been a way to meld those two halves into one more tense whole, but as it is both portions of the film work well.
I will say that with the minimum prepping I had I found the film a little predictable. There were a few wrinkles I didn’t anticipate, and at least one mislead that worked, but overall there were grand strokes I expected. There are just some things that don’t get mentioned in this sort of film if they’re not going to pay off later on. The finer details however were delightfully odder than I thought, so I think it more or less comes out a wash.
The Gift is a good movie; it’s nicely unsettling and well acted. Joel Edgerton makes a great choice casting Jason Bateman, and generally seems to handle the film well. There aren’t any amazing directorial feats, but the film doesn’t call for it, and Joel Edgerton’s script is plainly excellent. I will say, without providing context, that there wasn’t a single live monkey in the whole film, and I kind of expected one for a while. So what am I saying, no monkeys means it’s terrible. Forget everything else I said.