From the trailer, and just from its initial vibe, Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut The Gift looks like your stock “When bad things happen to good people” thriller, complete with a soulful pet dog you just know is going to get it. But dog lovers, and everyone else, should know that Edgerton (who also wrote the script and co-stars in the film) isn’t out for the cheap, predictable jolt. The dog ends up being OK; it’s the humans who suffer, but even then, Edgerton is more interested in exploring the darker reaches of human culpability, regret, and compassion – and in building and sustaining a simmering tension – than in loading up on gore or violence. What he comes up with is subtle, sinister, and surprisingly effective, particularly in the way it views men who stomp around importantly, busy with their various pissing contests and the general business of running the world.
Justin Bateman and Rebecca Hall play Simon and Robin, a couple preparing to relocate from cramped Chicago to a spacious midcentury-modern house somewhere in California. Their first tour through this house (accompanied by a chirpy real-estate agent) tells us something, though not everything, about their marriage: Simon is jovial and affectionate and seems to pretty much run the show; he’s the one with the big new job that’s occasioned the move. Robyn is thoughtful and hesitant, a bit like an awkward teenager in a woman’s body, but she generally seems fine with everything – it’s not so odd for one partner to go along to get along for the sake of a marriage. And then, like a bit of bad news in a plaid shirt, one of Simon’s old classmates shows up. Edgerton’s Gordo – known, in his schooldays, as Gordo the Weirdo — is socially bumbling and largely unreadable, but possibly harmless. He starts leaving strange, unwanted gifts on the couple’s doorstep. He also appears to be taking an unhealthy interest in Robyn.
Hall’s Robyn is both the key to the movie and its anchor: At first I kept thinking, “Why is this intriguing young actress, with such a marvelous, expressive face, taking roles in junkers like these?” Midway through The Gift, I knew exactly why she was there. Edgerton makes a few missteps in the movie’s wrap-up, which involves a costume that seems to exist only to drum up artificial spookiness – seeing the character’s face would have been far more chilling. But even if Edgerton makes a few bad calls, Hall does everything right: All the things Robyn wants but can’t quite articulate are right there in her shy, shaded glance and cautious half smile – and, eventually, in her fury. Edgerton hands the movie over to her – and that right there is what makes him a director to watch.