The Gift (2015)
Not Using His Gift
““You don't learn to walk by following rules. You learn by doing, and by falling over.”
― Richard Branson
Jason Bateman is scary. The established comic actor plays against type in Joel Edgerton’s psychological thriller “The Gift”. There is no nudity, foul language or bloodshed and yet the people at MPAA decided to give it a R (Restricted) rating. Bateman is good at being bad… or to be more precise, creepy. The supporting cast also hits their marks and give this pedestrian genre film more octane than the trailer would suggest. Mr. Edgerton, who wrote the screenplay, also successfully carries one of the leading roles… a down and out veteran with a past that involves the central character. His acting is stronger than his directing which is stronger than his writing. Edgerton can technically be called an auteur but he lacks the most crucial attribute, a personal vision. He is still under the spell of Hitchcock (Strangers on a Train, Psycho, Frenzy ),Roman Polanski (Repulsion) and Adrian Lyne (Fatal Attraction). The end result is a suspenseful 70 minutes, more than half hour of downtime and, most significantly, no afterthoughts. In hindsight this film is professionally bland and forgettable despite the in-theater thrill
“The Gift” possesses hints that Edgerton’s had grander ambitions. The ending seems pat and abrupt as the wronged party successfully gloats in revenge triumph against the bully. This sudden denouement leaves many loose ends that undercut film’s successful early sequences.The story revolves around a upscale couple that relocates to the husband’s childhood hometown. There is an inordinate degree of parsing of the troubling events that led to the move. The wife, a victim of depression/drug addiction, suffered a miscarriage. Given the arc of the plot it appears the careful detailing of this backstory belonged to an earlier manifestation of the script. It certainly would have added a dimension to the film had the credibility of Rebecca Hall been an open question to other’s within the story (Gaslight) or those in the audience (Repulsion). The final rendering, however, spends an inordinate amount of time illustrating her trauma without justification. Edgerton is too precise a filmmaker/writer to simply incorporate a ‘dead end’ storyline. Note: in the first encounter with the couple the nemesis casually stands within ear-shot as the sales clerk confirms an a address. This quick moment was probably missed by a vast majority of casual movie goers but obviously the director is not indifferent to small details. Surprisingly the wife’s dark history and the motivation for the move are incidental to the unfolding events. Would it have mattered had the wife been trouble-free and the couple changed locales due to her husband’s promotion? The portrait Jason Bateman is more troubling as it is incongruous, rather than superfluous. This is clearly a dedicated husband who stood by his partner during difficulty exclusively triggered by HER demons. These actions are in sync with his being former high school leader and all around ‘good guy’. But how does all this jibe with his other behavior? Do popular Student Council Presidents torment underclassmen? Do sociopaths support their troubled spouses without ulterior motives? More importantly is it credible that the wife was oblivious? Perhaps she had ulterior motives regarding her personal safety or financial security. Strangely she is utterly bewildered by all the revelations. Does she really not know? Once again had these themes been plumbed the memory of the final film might last beyond the parking lot of the movie theater. As it is, the audience is saddled with unbelievable characters performing improbable acts. This undercuts the well executed moments of tension. They are merely splashes of brilliance unanchored to a meaningful larger narrative.
Edgerton has honed his craft and can make an audience squirm in anticipation of something that never happens. Conversely he can make you jump from your seat when events explode with no foundation. This professionalism might be born of his years of working as an actor/writer. Cleary he has tenacious drive . A first time director receiving wide-scale distribution and mainstream financing faces daunting odds. It is unfortunate that the perseverance failed to deliver work that never rose above the glut of half hearted corporate endeavors. Perhaps he was worn down by merely arriving at the gate and surrendered artistic control. He played it safe as he delivered a more than watchable feature that has grossed four times the meager budget. Great for his career, not so for an audience member. There is a worn dreariness to the production. The sparseness was palpable.“The Gift” feels small in the manner of a student-film. If a director, due to penury considerations, must limit locations and actors, then compensate with innovation. Certainly he is familiar with Hitchcock’s Rope or Lifeboat. This material substituted competence for audacity. Despite all the glass, the house felt claustrophobic in a budget conscious way. Maybe the director will feel less artistically inhibited with his next project. Perhaps Mr. Bateman can reprise his bad guy. The confrontation with his high school friend and the “get over it’ soliloquy hints at what might have been. Maybe it is a harbinger of things to come. Edgerton has a gift. “The Gift” only reveals it at the edges.