The trailer for The Gift either completely sucks, or is the cleverest marketing strategy for a horror movie in years. It presents this, the debut feature from writer-director-star Joel Edgerton, as nothing more than your typical, run-of-the-mill revenge movie – kind of a modern Fatal Attraction, but with less sex and/or pet murder. In reality, The Gift is the smartest, scariest and most surprising horror movie of the year thus far. And, given just how little of its pleasures that terrible trailer gives away, it may just have the perfect marketing campaign behind it, too.
The premise is simple; sort-of happily married couple Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have just moved to L.A. He’s got a new job, while she’s going to be spending lots of boring days alone decorating their new pad. A ghost from Simon’s past soon shows up in the shape of socially awkward Gordo (Edgerton), and begins leaving gifts for them, turning up unannounced and generally just hanging around like a bad smell.
It’s clear from the outset that something is a bit off, as Gordo seems far more interested in Simon (and, crucially, Robyn) than Simon is in him. He’s introduced lurking in the background, waiting for his moment to pounce. He also seems to know a lot more about the couple than he’s letting on, including where they live, what hours Simon works and when Robyn is going to be home alone. It’s all a bit unsettling without anything too bizarre actually happening – and such is the crux of The Gift‘s incredible power as a horror movie.
Opening with an establishing shot that showcases just how isolated and exposed the new house is, the movie takes its time building the tension up to a devastating crescendo that even the most seasoned genre fan won’t see coming. Nasty without needing to show much, The Gift plants a multitude of seeds, but doesn’t give any hints as to which ones will sprout. Misdirects lead to more misdirects and, much like Simon himself, just when we think we have a handle on the situation, everything changes.
Simon is a very different role for Bateman, who has made a career out of playing the long-suffering, yet well-meaning, every-man. Here he is controlling, manipulative and just plain mean. It’s easy to see why Robyn empathises with sad sack Gordo, even when he oversteps his boundaries, because her husband isn’t exactly 100% nice himself. The Gift hinges much of its tension on the question of who the real villain is, Simon or Gordo and who’s telling the truth.
Although the guys get the meatiest scenes, Robyn is the real protagonist. She’s the focus, the vessel for the story. It’s through her that the audience tries to make sense of everything. She looks equally uncomfortable at Simon’s work events as she does alone with Gordo, and even when it seems like she might be slightly paranoid, it’s difficult to shake the feeling she’s being watched.
Edgerton edges his camera around corners, creeping down hallways as though someone is constantly lurking. There’s a voyeurism to the way he frames his shots that crawls under your skin. Although his style may seem perfunctory, the first time director shoots with remarkable control, capturing some gorgeous shots, particularly of the expansive Los Angeles landscape and, in one notably damning moment, Bateman in bathed in eerie red light.
The Gift is an astonishingly creepy, tense, and effective movie. Something as simple as a tap left running suddenly seems like the stuff of nightmares. There are just a handful of jump scares, presumably to cater to the multiplex crowd, all of which are well-handled and well-executed. This is the kind of movie during which horror fans will compete to spot the beats before they come, while regular movie-goers will be stuck to their seats, unsure of what the hell they’re even watching.
This is an interesting début feature for Edgerton, an Australian actor whose most recent role was opposite Christian Bale in the campy Exodus: Gods And Kings. His screenplay is tight, the lack of filler emphasised by Gordo’s constantly staying a beat too long than he should. There are moments that will provoke uneasy laughter, but this is a mostly sombre affair and Edgerton clearly, and rightly, has enough faith in the material to let it speak for itself.
He also does a terrific job as poor Gordo, a man whose life never progressed past high school and who, even though he feeds off Robyn’s loneliness and kindness, is impossible not to pity. Adopting an odd speech pattern and a hunched posture, Edgerton manages to keep Gordo’s true intentions hidden right up until the genuinely shocking finale, and even then he’s still not exactly an open book.
Regarding that finale, The Gift is being heralded for boasting the nastiest surprise of the summer – maybe even the year. Although genre purists may smart at such a bold suggestion, the plaudits being heaped upon this remarkable film are well-earned. Even the trailer seems to have been created to throw us off the scent. Not only does it belong to an entirely different film, it spoils precisely none of the surprises – a mean feat in modern cinema, and virtually unheard of in horror.
This is a smart choice for Jason Blum, too, whose Blumhouse is more well-known for putting out the likes of Sinister 2 (due in just a few weeks) and whose connection to the flick will likely draw in a crowd who would otherwise turn their noses up at such quiet, creepy and thought-provoking fare. The Gift is a very human film, one that meditates on the long-term effects of bullying and the constant need for control. It doesn’t need any ghouls or gore to scare us.
The house is haunted, sure, but by the ghosts of substance abuse, a miscarriage and perhaps even domestic violence. Edgerton hints at all of these things without outright confirming any of them actually happened. He keeps us guessing throughout, and the result is a profoundly disturbing, consistently creepy and nail-bitingly tense little thriller that, whether it gets the theatrical audiences it deserves or not, is destined to become a modern classic.
Don’t read anything else about it, don’t watch the trailer, just go and see The Gift immediately before someone spoils the surprise. It’s more than worth it.
WICKED RATING: (9/10)
Director(s): Joel Edgerton
Writer(s): Joel Edgerton
Stars: Jason Bateman, Rebecca Hall, Joel Edgerton
Studio/ Production Co: Blumhouse Productions
Length: 108 minutes
Sub-Genre: Revenge thriller