"The Gift" (2015)- Movie Review

Written and Directed by Joel Edgerton
Starring Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall and Joel Edgerton

‘A Thought-Provoking Thriller’

About halfway through Joel Edgerton’s latest thriller “The Gift”, I completely lost track of time. As if a magical spell had been woven on me, I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. It was an experience that was unlike any I’d had watching a movie in 2015: my heart was beating loudly, my jaw was dropped to the floor and even my teeth were chattering in ice-cold dread. For a split-second, I almost thought I was dreaming. As the film came to a close, however, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that I wasn’t.

As you may have already guessed, “The Gift” is one of the most exciting films of the year. In fact, simply calling it ‘exciting’ may be an understatement. In a Summer that has so far proven to be a let-down for movies, here comes a thriller that is so brilliantly acted, sharply written and beautifully shot that it’s hard to believe that it’s the work of a first-time filmmaker. Although it only marks the directorial debut of Joel Edgerton, he juggles the writing, direction and acting seamlessly to create an extremely engaging thriller. Not only are you engaged by it’s edge-of-the-seat thrills but also challenged to keep up with the story using thought-process. In a day and age when most movies tend to be mindless, “The Gift” is one of those rare one-of-a-kind thrillers that is both entertaining and intellectually stimulating.

Not since 2013’s nail-biting intense “Prisoners”, has a thriller been so gripping and thought-provoking to watch. Like solving a mind-boggling jigsaw puzzle, “The Gift” constantly keeps you at the edge of your seat as well as thinking throughout it’s running-time. Perhaps the best way to describe the film, however, is that it’s totally unpredictable. The plot- though fairly simple on the surface- heads in shockingly unexpected directions that you don’t see coming from a mile away. It begins on a cheerful and happy note that deceives you into thinking that everything is going to be alright. At first, life seems to be going according to plan for Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), a married couple that have settled into a new neighborhood. However, their relationship is turned upside down when a mysterious man from the husband’s childhood begins leaving gifts at their doorstep. What at first seems like a friendly gesture soon turns into a nightmare when they discover that the stalker isn’t in search for friendship but revenge.

It is then that we are thrown into the lives of ordinary people who are forced to face past demons, secrets that have been hidden for over 20 years and the consequences of dastardly decisions…

Right off the bat, what stands out the most about “The Gift” is the atmosphere of dread and tension that it creates to draw in the viewer. From it’s opening scene to the intense finale, this is a thriller that consistently has you glued to the screen throughout. If there’s anyone who is an expert at creating this build-up of suspense, it’s writer-director Joel Edgerton. Like a composer leading an orchestra, he does a marvelous job of combining different ingredients to create tension. From a haunting, eerie score to unexpected twists/turns, he uses many tools to cast a spell on the viewer. None are more impressive, however, than the visually gorgeous cinematography. Giving the thriller a chilling and downright scary visual look, it adds to the viewing experience by deeply immersing you into the movie. This immersive visual look is one of the many reasons why you can’t take your eyes off the screen while watching “The Gift”.

When you’re not gaping in awe at the visuals, however, you are gripped by the fascinating characters at the center of “The Gift”. While there’s no denying that visually this is an astounding film to look at, the main reason why it works so well is due to the attention that’s paid to character development. Nowadays, ‘character-development’ is not often found in thrillers. In most cases, the visuals are the highlight while characters are treated as an after thought. Refreshingly, however, that’s not the case with “The Gift”. Each of the characters in this movie are flawed human beings whom you genuinely come to care about. ‘Realistic’ isn’t a compliment that I toss around on a regular basis, but the characters that are created here are grounded in reality. They look, talk and behave like real human beings would if put in certain situations. You emotionally connect with these characters, even though they are not the most likeable people in the world.

Stepping into the shoes of these multi-layered characters are three exceptionally talented actors. Writer-director Joel Edgerton masterfully handles the acting, giving each of these performers the opportunity to leave a lasting impression.

Perhaps, the most surprising of these three actors is Jason Bateman, who reveals a dramatic side to his acting that we’ve never seen before. If you thought that Jason Bateman was nothing more than a funny actor suited to playing ‘comedy’ roles, his powerful performance in “The Gift” may take you by surprise. Stepping out of his comfort zone of playing goofy and silly characters, here he shows that he can just as easily play a selfish man desperately running away from his past. The sign of a great actor often comes across when they can play a wide variety of roles, not limited to one genre. It’s definitely the case with Bateman, who proves that he can do comedy as well as drama in one of the best performances of his career to date.

Another standout in the cast is British actress Rebecca Hall. As a suspicious wife who thinks she knows her husband but actually doesn’t, Hall conveys deep emotion through her facial expressions. Impressively, she manages to show the emotions that her character is going through often without saying a single word. A saying that sums up her performance is by Dale Carnegie: “the expression a woman wears on her face is far more important than the clothes she wears on her back”.

Although he is surrounded by these heavyweight stars that dominate the screen, Joel Edgerton also gets the opportunity to shine as an actor. Despite having less screen-time than his co-stars, he sends shivers down your spine whenever he appears in the role of a creepy stalker. Heartbreaking and sympathetic, Edgerton makes you feel for a guy who by the standards of today’s society would be considered ‘weird’.

The pacing is praise-worthy as well. In spite of the fact that this is his first-feature, Joel Edgerton handles the pacing like an expert. Even though it clocks in at a fairly long running time of 2 hours, “The Gift” is one of those rare thrillers that is thoroughly engrossing from start to finish. Like reading a gripping novel, it’s hard to put down.

That being said, “The Gift” is not a film that will appeal to everyone particularly not to those with a low-attention span. Despite the enormous praise that has been heaped upon this suspenseful-thriller, what makes it fall short of being a classic is a slow first-hour which may test the patience of viewers. This is the kind of movie that takes it’s time to introduce and develop the characters as well as build suspense. It’s an approach that will likely prove rewarding for patient movie-goers, but those looking for excitement right away may be disappointed.

Some viewers may also be drawn away by the dark and disturbing subject matter of “The Gift”. Shining light on controversial topics such as abuse, bullying and rape, it’s not a film that is meant for the faint of heart.

If you appreciate movies that make you think, however, then “The Gift” is a thought-provoking thriller that will be right up your alleyway. One of the best films of the year, it’s a movie that has been made to put a smile on the face of movie-goers seeking smart entertainment. And in a disappointing Summer that has offered it’s fair share of dumb & mindless movies, I’m definitely one of them…

4.5/5 stars

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