Sunday, August 9, 2015

In Theaters: THE GIFT (2015)

(US/China/Australia - 2015)

Written and directed by Joel Edgerton. Cast: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton, Allison Tolman, Busy Philipps, Wendell Pierce, Beau Knapp, David Denman, Tim Griffin, Katie Aselton, Nash Edgerton, Adam Lazarre-White, Mirrah Foulkes, Susan May Pratt, PJ Byrne, David Joseph Craig. (R, 108 mins)

On its surface, THE GIFT is a throwback to the kind of glossy, post-FATAL ATTRACTION obsessive stalker thrillers that were in theaters well into the 1990s, like THE HAND THAT ROCKS THE CRADLE, SINGLE WHITE FEMALE, THE CRUSH, THE TEMP, and THE TIE THAT BINDS among many others. It also utilizes the kind of inspired mid-film and third-act twist and direction shifts that became the increasingly ludicrous genre norm after THE USUAL SUSPECTS in 1995. I'd argue that, like 1974's BLACK CHRISTMAS providing the real template for the '80s slasher film even though HALLOWEEN (1978) and FRIDAY THE 13TH (1980) get all the credit, it was Wolfgang Petersen's SHATTERED, released in the fall of 1991, that really got the ball rolling on the insane third-act plot-twist craze that goes on to this day (I still remember the TV spots promising "Your wildest dreams can't prepare you for the ending...of SHATTERED!" and for once, something lived up to the hype). You don't see many movies like THE GIFT getting wide releases these days, especially in the blockbuster-heavy summer season. It's the kind of mid-budget film that becomes a modest success and grosses the kind of small profit--profit is still profit--that was enough to make everyone involved happy 20-25 years ago, and that's why it's such an anomaly today.

Written and directed by Australian actor Joel Edgerton (WARRIOR, EXODUS: GODS AND KINGS), THE GIFT spends about half of its running time being one of those glossy thrillers from yesteryear: Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn Callen (Rebecca Hall) have just moved from Chicago to suburban Los Angeles--where he grew up--when Simon accepts a new executive job at a tech sales firm. They're also escaping a rough patch--Robyn had a miscarriage followed by a short-lived prescription drug problem--and a new job and new home in a new place giving them the fresh start they need. While out shopping, they have a chance encounter with Gordon Mosley (Edgerton), a high school classmate of Simon's. Simon initially doesn't recognize Gordon, who seems socially awkward but friendly, and after some harmless pleasantries, Simon and Robyn jot down his phone number to be nice but have no intention of calling. Within a couple of days, Gordon leaves a bottle of wine on their doorstep, followed soon after by fish and fish food for a koi pond in their front yard. They invite him over for dinner out of obligation, and soon after, he's showing up unannounced, always when Simon is at work, and Robyn, who thinks Gordon is nice and means well, is at home alone. Then there's an odd dinner at Gordon's, the Callens' dog Mr. Bojangles vanishes, Robyn has a constant feeling that someone else is in the house, and when Simon decides it's time to "break up" with Gordon, who was apparently known as "Gordo the Weirdo" in high school, things get really interesting.

Edgerton makes his directing debut with THE GIFT, but he's written screenplays before, most notably the acclaimed 2008 thriller THE SQUARE, directed by his older brother Nash (who has a small role here as one of Simon's co-workers). He has more on his mind than a present-day homage to quarter-century old thrillers. The plot of THE GIFT can't possibly be described any further without significant spoilers, but suffice it to say Edgerton is dead-on when he cites Michael Haneke's CACHE as a chief influence (there's another big influence, but to mention it is a potential spoiler). Edgerton keeps the audience on their toes and riveted, and even two cheap jump scares work beautifully, with the audience screaming and then laughing at their overreaction. That's when you know a film is working. Amidst the red herrings (what's with that long shot of a staring Mr. Bojangles?) and sly misdirection, THE GIFT doesn't deal in black & white but rather, ambiguities and changing perceptions: Gordo is the clear antagonist for the first half of the film, at least until Simon's increasing irritability over Robyn's persistent questions forces her to start digging into her husband's past (when Gordon leaves a final note to Simon that closes with "I was willing to let bygones be bygones," Simon refuses to explain what it could mean) and even then the film doesn't go in the direction you assume it will. Edgerton manages to pull off a high-wire act of being both a creepy stalker and someone who elicits sympathy, while Bateman's Simon isn't really much of a departure from his usual smarmy, sarcastic persona as Robyn begins unearthing what can best be described as the dark side of Michael Bluth. Even when it's all over and the credits roll, your loyalties and sympathies shifting until literally the very last shot, it's the kind of film that offers little in the way of closure and absolutes and will have you replaying everything and debating the outcome (can't wait for the flood of inane thinkpieces over the next week or two). When's the last time you saw strangers exiting a theater enthusiastically dissecting the movie they just watched? Why can't movies like THE GIFT happen more often?

No comments:

Post a Comment