Though Australian actor Joel Edgerton is best known for his role in the “Star Wars” prequels, Tom Buchanan in Baz Luhrmann’s “The Great Gatsby,” and the bad guy in Ridley Scott’s “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” his directorial debut “The Gift,” which he also wrote and acted in, may change that in the future. “The Gift” stars Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall as Simon and Robyn, a young married couple living in the Hollywood Hills. One day, Simon has a chance encounter with an old high school classmate named Gordy (Edgerton) who starts to ingratiate himself in their lives. While Robyn is more patient with the socially awkward Gordy, Simon is immediately suspicious of his unexpected visits and generally unsettling nature. Eventually, secrets come out about Simon’s past and Gordy’s true intentions, forcing Robyn to reevaluate her marriage as well as the true nature of her husband.
Advance marketing for “The Gift” focused in part on creeping out those who might write about it, combing through their social media histories to send them eerily stalker-like messages. Nonetheless, by and large, critics mostly liked “The Gift,” especially as both an homage to “Fatal Attraction”-esque thrillers and a send-up of their conventions, but many admit that it’s a little rough around the edges and eventually becomes a bit humdrum by its third act. Nevertheless, for a directorial debut, “The Gift” is a surprisingly effective addition to the multiplex this late in the summer.
“The Gift” opens August 7th
Reviews of “The Gift”
Scott Foundas, Variety
The sins of the high-school cafeteria come home to roost in “The Gift,” a coolly unsettling thriller that begins as an un-ironic homage to late-’80s/early-’90s yuppies-in-peril dramas like “Fatal Attraction” and “The Hand That Rocks the Cradle,” before taking a turn toward the moral and existential minefield of Michael Haneke’s “Cache.” A modest but accomplished directing debut for actor and screenwriter Joel Edgerton (who also gives himself a plum role here), “The Gift” is a more psychological, slow-burn genre exercise than the psycho-stalker shocker it’s being sold as by DIY horror specialists Blumhouse and Robert Simonds’ newly launched STX Entertainment.
Jon Frosch, The Hollywood Reporter
Edgerton, who wrote recent Australian noirs “The Square” and “Felony,” has a somewhat cut-and-dry approach to plot and character, and indeed “The Gift” doesn’t do much with the relationship between Simon and Gordo. The slight frisson of homoeroticism is never teased out (this is no “Chuck & Buck,” despite broad similarities), and there’s little genuine mystery or depth to the queasy rekindling of the bond between these two men. But the writer-director knowingly plays on our familiarity with tropes of the genre, both stylistic (smash cuts, insinuating music, scenes that begin with the camera creeping down empty hallways) and narrative (interrupted dinner parties, confrontations in dimly lit parking garages, intrigue related to the main female character’s fertility/maternity) — and just when you peg “The Gift” as pure pastiche, you notice the film doing things a bit differently. Robyn’s conflicted feelings toward both Gordo and her own husband emerge as the movie’s driving force; what first looks like a typical male-dominated revenge fantasy turns into the story of a woman coming to understand which flaws in her partner she’s willing to live with and which she’s not. Edgerton also slyly alters the template, blurring the lines between villain and victim and building to a bleak, ambiguous denouement rather than the usual bloody cat-and-mouse climax.
Gregory Ellwood, HitFix
Edgerton, who also wrote the screenplay, shows a masterful touch in playing with conventional expectations. For the most part Robyn and Simon react to the events in the film in a realistic manner you wouldn’t expect. Edgerton smartly emphasizes this by having the pair verbalize their discomfort as they try to figure out what’s exactly going on. The Aussie filmmaker is also astute enough to make Robyn (and the audience) question if there is anything really wrong with Gordo to begin with or is Simon simply projecting his own personal opinions about an old classmate he claims he barely remembers? As the film unfolds the characters become increasingly complex as the audience’s initial black and white perceptions of them fade into constantly shifting shades of grey. Is there truly a villain in this story? Unlike most Hollywood productions it depends on your point of view and that makes the film something of an unexpected surprise.
James Rocchi, The Wrap
It’s hard to set a thriller in L.A. after all these years and movies; in most films, the streets and buildings themselves feel spent, exhausted, as if everything bad that could have happened already has. But “The Gift” is aware of our cinematic relationship with L.A., making nods to everything from Manson to Polanski, and warping those clichés as we notice it evoking them. It doesn’t take place on the mean streets; it unfolds high in the Hollywood Hills, mostly, where the houses are beautiful and quiet and just far enough apart that you couldn’t hear it if that quiet was broken by a scream. Gordon keeps dropping by; Robyn, alone and lonely, keeps inviting him in out of simple politeness. Simon finds Gordon’s ubiquity creepy — and Robyn will eventually discover why. Anyone can find chills in a Dickensian crypt; doing so in a mid-century modern with beautiful windows is another matter. Edgerton does exactly that here, showing what happens when the characters go outside of the bounds of politeness and into the darker places outside it. As you would hope for any film where things go bump in the night, the sound editing and mixing are both superb (Julian Slater is credited with both), not just because of the film’s shrieking scares but more so due to its uncomfortable silences. Simon, it turns out, was a bit of a bully as a kid; worse, he may be one now. And his marriage isn’t as happy as we first think, of course.
Katie Walsh, The Playlist
The film is beautifully shot with extensive use of practical lamp light either dimming or brightening the rooms. There’s a thematic aesthetic motif around windows and their reflections that adds to the suspense but also serves to elucidate the conflicts between the characters. They are separated by these invisible barriers — barriers that reflect images. But what is real? The perception of the reflection? These windows are used to great effect, both stylistically and in serving the story. The gorgeous modern house itself becomes the fourth player in this chilling dance of power dynamics and paranoia, as they do in most great thrillers.
Matt Singer, Screen Crush
Edgerton’s camerawork and editing choices aren’t flashy, but the “Great Gatsby” and “Exodus: Gods and Kings” star already understands how to express ideas with subtle visual cues. Simon and Robyn’s house, for example, with its floor-to-ceiling windows not only serves as an ideal setting for a horror movie about the terrifying things that lurk in the dark, its glass walls speaks to the movie’s themes of transparency and secrecy in a troubled marriage. “The Gift’s” final act delivers yet another narrative shock, though not necessarily a welcome one. After spending most its middle third burrowing deeply into the characters and their respective pasts, the film pulls back, and winds up satisfying many of the surface conventions of the genre it had previously upended. Still, there’s enough here to recommend, both as a disturbing drama about human nature and as a calling card for Edgerton, who could have a bright directorial career ahead of him if he can keep delivering movies that zig when audiences expect them to zag. For cinephiles, little surprises like these are the best gift of all.