The Gift (2015)

Directed by Joel Edgerton

Contains spoilers.

Joel Edgerton's feature-length directorial debut is a success. And although it's marketed as a fast-paced and blood curdling [and almost generic] horror flick, it is anything but that, and most often is bright and inviting.

The Gift is glacial, almost painful in it's measured pace. Opening with a familiar setting, we quickly learn about our hero and heroine: Simon and his wife, Robyn, have moved house for a fresh start, bought a great house with huge windows, and are trying to start a family. In the process of their move they bump into an old high school buddy of Simon's, Gordon, a chance encounter that soon starts to seem like more than coincidence.

Seemingly well-natured presents and house visits soon follow their run-in with Gordo, starting to unsettle Simon. Robyn, almost annoyingly good-natured and friendly, encourages Simon to forego his paranoia. But Simon is annoyed and protective, thinking Gordo's obsessed with Robyn because [he was called "Gordo the weirdo" in high school" and] he only ever seems to come around when she's home alone.

As the story progresses we get tidbits of information, learning that Simon's past is the reason for all of this and that it didn't go exactly as Robyn's been led to believe. And although Gordo certainly is a creepy, off-putting guy, Simon is as well. Although he seems at first like a great husband, award-worthy, even, as he gets progressively more annoyed we also see exactly the kind of man he really is: selfish, dishonest, callous, manipulative, and controlling. So we end up with a thriller about a creepy guy with a painful past who's tormenting an asshole, and the nice, friendly woman gets caught in their midst, forcing a relapse into medication abuse because she can't sleep.

The movie progresses slowly, revealing information without over-informing, and that process isn't obvious and doesn't coddle the audience. Although he throws us into the familiar scenario of a couple starting a family with an oddball guy tilting their world upside down, Edgerton also knows very well exactly what tactics are overplayed in the horror genre. And just as easily as he starts the movie with a familiar scenario, he turns it into a mind game.

 

While there are a couple jump scares thrown in to rile things up, those tactics don't seem out of place because they fit so perfectly into the confines of the movie's personality. This is a movie that is meant to make you think, and about more than just bullying. What lies have been told to you? What have you been placated to accept?

Gordon is odd. Just like this isn't your typical thriller, Gordon isn't your typical antagonist, and, as we learn more about Simon, he sometimes can seem like a better person, minus the fact that Robyn's been caught up in his revenge as well. He is stone-faced and socially awkward but also surprisingly charismatic. He's not overtly menacing but his pause can last that certain, extra second that can be disconcerting. He's not overtly genius but his speech and actions have a certain thoroughness about them where, even as Simon hits him, you feel like he still has the advantage. He's found a mixture of poise, charm, and social awkwardness that lends itself to a surprising awareness, making you think that he probably knows exactly how awkward he might seem. That awkwardness might even be a test to see how far he can go before Simon pushes back.

The writing is clever and skilled and the photography is as well. They both push a sense of darkness, of something unaware and dangerous. Together, they create a feeling of claustrophobia, despite the couple's extensive windows in their home, that makes it feel as though they're never safe. It's been said that scares work best when they scare you once and then scare you again right before the credits roll. And Edgerton succeeds tremendously. There's a feeling of paranoia that pervades the film, and as Simon reaches the climactic events pitting him against Gordo, there's an odd conclusion of, "Who won?"

The only problem with Edgerton's skill in creating the mood of The Gift is that he does it so well and establishes it so quickly that the story then drags on. Through the second and third act, as Robyn investigates her husband's past, we're dragged through hoops, waiting for the next bit of information, with plentiful time to predict as it moves. In some instances, those predictions come true, and in others we're completely wrong. And again, Edgerton's mysterious atmosphere succeeds. Unto the end, we're left wondering just what kind of horror movie this is. At every turn, Edgerton tricks us. When Robyn showers, we're tricked into thinking it'll be a kidnapping story; when a window shatters, we're tricked into thinking it'll be a visceral attack; when Robyn wanders the house, we're tricked into thinking it'll be a skilled home invasion. And despite the glacial pace, the driving force of the characters lends itself to the smart creation of suspense that keeps us guessing.

This isn't a horror about revenge via murder; this is a disturbing suspense about tearing someone's mind apart, about destroying the certainty they've had from years of getting their way. If you wanted something overtly thrilling, this isn't for you. If you wanted something bloody and pulse-pounding, this isn't for you. But if you can appreciate tension and an utterly creepy atmosphere then the slow pace is perfect.

 
 

TL;DR: This is not your normal horror. Mostly because it's not as much a horror film as it is successfully suspenseful. It certainly isn't the best thriller; there's no gore, no action, no genius interplay between characters as they outwit each other, but the writing is great and the villain is subtly dangerous. Although the main characters are both assholes and it's odd to have a villain in the spotlight, it's a paranoid pleasure to see how this pans out.

  • Acting – 18 / 20
  • Story – 14 / 20
  • Cinematography – 12 / 20
  • Soundtrack – 4 / 10
  • Entertainment Factor – 6 / 10
  • Mystery/Suspense – 6 / 10
  • Other – 7 / 10
 

Grade D = 67 / 100