Friday, 25 September 2015

Movie Review: The Gift (2015)



Yep, another actor deciding to take up the mantle of director… and he’s Australian to boot. I can only hope that this fares better than last time this happened. Well, okay, this doesn’t have nearly as bad a lead-up as The Water Diviner. For starters, our aspiring director Joel Edgerton is also penning the script for this film and, judging by his role from the trailer, this should be less ‘vanity project’ and more ‘passion project’; something a bit more heart put into it. It also helps that he isn’t being funded by a television station; instead, he’s being backed by Jason Blum, the most prominent hack producer working today. Yeah, I’m not entirely sure how one becomes a producer-for-hire, but given how he’s been attached to at least 11 films this year alone, something tells me that his attachment here is nothing too special. So, do we get another Crowe or is this actually good? This is The Gift.

The plot: Shortly after Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) Callum move into a new house, Simon runs into an old face from high school: Gordo (Joel Edgerton). Gordo starts leaving gifts in front of their house and, before too long, Simon starts getting a little creeped out. However, once he tries to confront him about it, Gordo starts bringing back skeletons from his and Simon’s past and Robyn begins to question who she is even able to trust.

Over the last few years, Edgerton’s star has risen to the point where he is working with A-list visual directors like Ridley Scott and Baz Luhrmann. Now, regardless of the quality of the films he did with those two (Spoilers: They both sucked), he must have picked up a few pointers because this is a fantastic looking film, especially for a first-time outing. I hold steadfast to the idea that the best filmmakers out there are able to completely warp the visuals into their exact opposite, like a scene flooded with sunlight being inordinately depressing like with 2014’s These Final Hours, and we get a similar effect here. The camera work is almost scientific in how calculated it looks, giving the Callum household where the majority of the film takes place a cold and unnerving feel to it; even during the day-time, their house feels as homely as the Leatherface residence.

Okay, so the settings look good, what about the people that fill them? Well, Edgerton as Gordo matches the production’s skin-crawling potential point for point. Not only that, it’s kind of astounding just how much of him is unsettling, to the point where not only is every part of him scary to look at (right down to those dark eyes) but there are also several moment when he is out-of-focus in the frame and he still has that effect. But this is his project after all; I’d hope he’d give his all for something that he’s already so involved in. Bateman, considering how dull (This Is Where I Leave You) and borderline offensive (Horrible Bosses) his recent fare can get, I was less optimistic about especially considering he has never struck me as much of a character actor. Then I saw him in this movie… I’m sorry, but where was this level of commitment when I had sit through those other movies? This is more Patrick Bateman than anything else. From what I can tell, he hasn’t done this kind of serious work before, but I sincerely hope that he does more of it because he almost matches Edgerton in terms of intimidating on-screen presences. His character, from the off-set, is an asshole and there really isn’t much to like about him. He isn’t all that sympathetic either, nor does his assholery enter the realms of unwatchable; he exists in this weird limbo that I think is called ‘real life’. His actions make sense given his background and the personality that we see during the film, not to mention being framed so that it’s believable. Essentially, it’s the difference between Ben Affleck playing the asshole in films like Chasing Amy and him doing the same role in pretty much any other film; one works and the other doesn’t. As for Rebecca Hall as Robyn, she essentially plays the viewpoint character for the audience since she, much like us, doesn’t know who the true villain is here. She reacts to the insanity around her accordingly, and as much as I kind of object to some of the handling of her characterization, I can’t fault that it’s at least handled well and nicely developed.

I’ve already mentioned the atmosphere, and for the most part it isn’t wasted. I say the most part because this film indulges in quite a few things that I particularly don’t want in these kinds of films: Namely, jump scares, a slow plot and not a whole lot to read between the script’s lines. While the jump scares here are few and far between, they seem to be overcompensating by largely sticking to Luton Bus jump scares where the pay-off is inconsequential. Even for someone who freely admits that there are times when jump scares can be used effectively, I can’t stand this crap. However, even with that said, as someone who has sat through numerous films that utilize extremely cheap jump scares, I know my usual reaction to something loud jumping out at the screen. It is usually nowhere near as potent as my reaction from the jump scares in this movie. As for the slow plot, it takes its time to burn through the character actions and re-actions, and then the final reel kicks in… and in all seriousness, it’s been far too long since a film has given me the shakes like this one did. Our three mains are all put through the ringer, with all of the particularly dark notions brought up earlier in the film being outclassed by what takes place in these last few minutes. I dare not spoil them, but they leave the film on an extremely dour note that might be the most satisfying conclusion of the year, with the only possible competition being It Follows. Ambiguous endings, like so many other conventions, are rarely done well but, if anything, the fact that it has one only improves the overall product.

All in all, this is terrifying to the point of needing respiratory assistance. It exists not to blow minds with deeper commentary within the script, but to get the heart racing and the skin crawling; even as someone who loves reading into films, I call this as I see it: An example of where execution and delivery win out. The characters are well-fleshed out, the production values are excellent and the writing, even if it does delve into the stalker thriller goodie bag at times, and hell the whole ‘sins of the past’ is a primary go-to for slasher films, is clever and delivers heavy drama. Given the recent crash concerning upstart filmmaker Josh Trank, I may end up eating my words here but I hope, with every fiber of my being, that Joel Edgerton keeps making movies. It’s better than It Follows, as this film just managed to deliver more scares, but it ranks just below Big Eyes, where there is more of a connection between the audience and the main character. If you like your films on the dark and morbid side, or just like seeing comedic actors step out of their comfort zones, I implore you to check this out.

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