All it takes is for a simple word or phrase to burrow itself in your brain. Words can take hold of you, and consume you. Shape how you think, feel or live. It's this idea that makes Joel Edgerton's directorial debut, The Gift, so powerful and compelling.
As well as playing the central role in the film, The Gift is a wholly original piece that was written, produced and directed by Edgarton. It's a stunning first feature for the Australian, especially after his his scenery-chewing role in Exodus: Gods and Kings cast doubt about his ability last year.
Whilst the film unquestionably belongs to Edgarton, my highlight was easily Jason Bateman. Now, I've given Bateman a hard time on this blog in the past. To me, he's always been one of those actors that crops up here and there but never truly excels in that one role that'll stick in your mind long after. That has all changed now though, as his performance in The Gift is exceptional; he steps into the skin of this character so seamlessly that you genuinely can't separate the two.
It's a terrific performance that really grows throughout the film as Simon becomes increasingly angry and desperate around Gordo. Bateman, typically the straight guy to someone sillier in comedies like Horrible Bosses, sheds all that baggage to give his best career performance so far; the escalating battle of wits between Simon and Gordo reaches this dizzying emotional crescendo that gives both Bateman and Edgarton room to flex their muscles, with one scene in a parking lot being particularly effective.
Rebecca Hall completes the trifecta of brilliance in this film with a performance that sees her caught in the middle, terrified to confront Gordo but also dubious of her own husband. For most of the film, it's through her widened eyes that we watch the drama unfold, and Hall really nails it. Alison Tolman (the star of FX's Fargo) leads an excellent supporting cast; this film really is a character actor's dream and there genuinely isn't anyone who feels like a weak link.
I could go on about the acting in this film for a while longer because it's all amazing. But failing to mention Edgarton's film-making craft would be remiss when, in his first attempt, the Australian has delivered an exceptional slice of tense psychological horror that'll put him on the map.
Edgerton uses lots of slow, empty frames to build tension, where the camera lingers on the nuanced expression of his actors. Lots of gorgeous soft focus adds to this atmosphere, and showcases his profound ability for making your skin crawl. Everything feels balanced on a knife edge, with the viewer genuinely terrified about whether Gordo is keeping it level or about to go all American Psycho on us. My only complaint is that the film relies on some pretty cliched musical cues to tee up jump scares or surprises. It's not that exploitive, but it does feel a little too horror B-movie for a film that is so sublime and classy everywhere else.
When the truth does finally come to light and we learn the dark secret from Gordo's past, it's not as sickening or twisted as it would be than if someone like David Fincher had directed this film. It's not fantastical - it's really tangible and restrained, where the real horror is founded in the sense that this, and everything else that comes with it, could just as easily happen to you. I really loved the ending as well; chilling, unsettling and with question marks still hanging overhead. Just how I like 'em.
The Verdict: 9/10
Edgerton's film really is the gift that just keeps giving; from direction to writing and acting, The Gift is a tense, classy and truly terrifying film that packs a hefty punch whilst also understanding the art of restraint. One of the best thrillers, nay, films you'll see this year.