“Actor turned writer/director” is a questionable phrase for a movie reviewer. Even more skeptical is the age-old “they’re good with actors” argument everyone trumpets when they fall overboard for the likes of Robert Redford upon directing a stately, dismally respectable, vacantly uninteresting prestige pic of the Capital-O Oscarbait demeanor. Sure, actors turned directors tend to have a certain camaraderie with their cast, but a good cast, a good performance, despite what seemingly every lazy reviewer in the world tells you, does not a good movie make.
The Gift is not only a debut by an actor, Joel Edgerton, turned director and writer in one fell swoop, but it is also a film whose marketing campaign was, charitably speaking, dead in the water. It is also, to add insult to injury, not a film whose director/writer was ever a particularly notable actor to begin with. Sure, he’s never been especially bad in anything, but his chance to shine in the limelight has yet to be given to him; maybe Edgerton has a great performance under a separate director lurking under his skin, but he hasn’t yet delivered it. Three strikes, then, for The Gift.
Yet it seems that on all three fronts, Edgerton has pulled a fast one. Each flaw becomes a devious sort of trick pulled by the actor, either intentionally or unintentionally, and they form the very backbone of the film’s identity as a grand old thriller of the sly, devilish sort. Primarily, Edgerton is good with actors, including himself, it seems, but he doesn’t use any of those actors as we might expect. When we meet Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn Callen (Rebecca Hall), they are an old fashioned married couple moving out West, thoroughly likeable and gentle until they are confronted with Gordon Mosley (Edgerton), a socially awkward, skulking man from Simon’s past who wants, incessantly, to befriend them, perhaps because he has no friends of his own. Three roles, and we expect, respectively, an everyman, a passive house wife, and nebbish, queasy Anthony Perkins style stalker.
Hall, for her part, is given a figure of reportorial agency and interrogation, an actor rather than a classical thriller idle woman, and Edgerton invests in his own performance the expected nervous gait, but he becomes a figure to fear, pity, shun, sympathize with, and respect in equal measure. Bateman, in particular, begins the film by playing in his usual register of mildly flustered everyman that he essayed so wonderfully in Arrested Development all those years ago. But it is a ruse; Edgerton has other ideas, slipping and sliding his picture into a scorching critique of male privilege, a critique of modern corporatism, and a critique of cinematic thriller history. Without alluding to much, Edgerton takes the “Hitchcock with Jimmy Stewart” course and doesn’t so much essay a great, conventional performance of showy ticks and gestures out of Bateman. He instead relies on Bateman’s schlubby image, and relies on the audience’s baggage toward Bateman they bring into the film, to turn the screw of our appreciation for the everyman American just trying to get by and care for his wife. It is audience baiting, absolutely, but as with Hitchcock, it is playful, literate audience baiting, and entirely successful.
The closest modern comparison point might be Steven Soederbergh’s Side Effects, a film with a similar passion for experimenting with narrative and technique and exploring how similar techniques can be used for prismatic, ambidextrous purposes. Except, while Soederbergh tricked us into thinking his film was a Jimmy Stewart Hitchcock film (a social critique) and actually delivered a Cary Grant Hitchcock film (an old fashioned entertainment with conservative morality), Edgerton flips the script and uses the film’s ungainly, vapid marketing campaign to lull us to sleep before pulling the rug out from under us with a vituperative, uncomfortable social critique. Even when the advertisements predicted the film’s shifting alliances and distrust for the ostensible male hero (not a twist, mind you, for Edgerton is too clever to rely on twists), Edgerton still confounds expectations by looking beyond an individual critique of our supposed lead and into exposing the festering lies of the system of male and corporate privilege he represents.
I shouldn’t say that “Edgerton uses the advertising this way”. Obviously I don’t know what his intent was, and the failure of the film’s marketing may simply be a happy accident owed to the film’s casual mastery of narrative scripting at war with Hollywood’s casual mastery of inept, misbegotten trailer design. One thing Edgerton clearly did intend, however, was his own gravid and startling craftsmanship, which is what brings us back to “Edgerton the relative unknown actor without a name to his name”. When someone like, I don’t know, Robert Redford or Ben Affleck makes a film, regardless of quality, they have name recognition on their side; lazy directorial shorthand isn’t a problem when the Academy will fall for you due to your friendly, popular household name status. Edgerton doesn’t yet know such a privilege, so he had to work for The Gift.
And work and perspire he did, although not on his lonesome. He displays a faultless command of blocking and framing his characters in ascetic, rigid spaces threatening to cut the characters into pieces, and he has a great deal of fun with physical spaces. But as much of the skill comes from cinematography Eduard Gau and production designer Richard Sherman, who especially invokes the contrast between the bourgeois open spaces and the thickly windowed modernism of the rising Callen household and the kitschy, opulent hysteria of the house Mosley pretends to occupy (the operatic corpulence of objects and paintings turns the location into a demented playhouse that sells both Mosley’s cotton-candy lies and, more importantly, the gross aristocracy of the real house owners, the type of people Simon clearly pines to become).
The film isn’t a masterpiece of craft, but Edgerton displays an intuitive understanding of visual storytelling, especially early on when he subtly explores Simon as a bully and a brute of a modern male even before the screenplay refers to this truth (an early shot of Simon appearing on the other side of a glass window from outside his house, watching and trapping his wife from inside, is a dead giveaway for those who are looking). The shot masquerades as a display of tender affection, but like the film, it has many secrets.
Another wonderful image is a giallo-influenced shot of Simon lit in gross, violent red and green hues (again, a combination that holds many meanings, evoking Christmas and happy families as well as a brutal, sickly contrast of blood and toxic, decaying flesh under the same facade, the very contrast that epitomizes Simon’s personality). Visually, and fitting the brief appearance of Christmas in the film, The Gift is all about how naughty and nice are identical, and how the modern male’s desire to protect is really a desire for power. That the visuals of the film do everything in their power to essay this theme ensures that The Gift is a bold display of craft and theme in perfect harmony, if not necessarily a perfect film. A certain chilly over-determination creeps in around the edges, especially when the final third develops a nasty habit of literalizing what had been implicit in the visual framing mechanics beforehand. But The Gift is an August release (one of the de facto dumping ground months for film releases) that has genuinely new, insightful knives to stick into the august tradition of the household thriller.