Thursday, August 13, 2015

Blast from the Past: The Gift

Joel Edgerton (right) in The Gift, a film Edgerton also wrote and directed.

In movies, the Australian actor Joel Edgerton is best known for playing a wide assortment of muscle men and meatheads. Edgerton was the thuggish small-time crime lord in Animal Kingdom, one of the Navy SEALs on a mission to take out Osama bin Laden in Zero Dark Thirty, and the MMA fighter who reconnects with his estranged brother (Tom Hardy) by kicking his ass in the Octagon in Gavin O’Connor critically acclaimed, sweat-stained male weepie Warrior. (On stage, he has taken on the greatest meathead role in the pantheon of the American theater, Stanley Kowalski, in two separate productions of A Streetcar Named Desire.) When Edgerton finally got the chance to play a character who doesn’t come down to dinner in his undershirt, it was the oafish nouveau riche villain Tom Buchanan in the 2013 Baz Luhrmann travesty The Great Gatsby.

There, he made the fatal mistake of trying to scale his performance to match the bombastic style of his director. Neither Luhrmann nor Edgerton seemed to understand that Tom’s lines about the scientific basis for racism and looking out for number one are enough on their own to mark him as an obnoxious fellow; it isn’t really necessary for the actor to underline things by bellowing every syllable. Edgerton makes his directing debut with The Gift, which he also wrote and acts in, and it’s a bit of a shock: a deft, perfectly controlled little thriller, a commercial entertainment but one that’s smart and detailed and rewards close attention to the nuances of what’s being said and how. It is that rarest of oases in the late summer movie release schedule, an actor’s movie.

The Gift begins with Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall as a married couple, Simon and Robyn Callen, who have moved from Chicago to a house in Simon’s old California stomping grounds. We’re made to understand that there’s been some unhappiness in the marriage, some of it related to a miscarriage, for which Robyn has agreed to shoulder the blame, and that the move is their way of putting the past behind them. The past—Simon’s this time—soon makes itself felt in the form of Edgerton’s character, Gordon, an old high school classmate who runs into the two of them during a shopping expedition and works to insert himself into their lives. Simon insists that he can barely remember Gordon, though he modestly takes credit for sticking him with the nickname “Gordo the Weirdo.” If eight years of President George W. Bush has taught us anything, it’s to be especially wary of guys who pride themselves on assigning everyone around them nicknames.

Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman in The Gift.
The Gift has some perfectly executed make-you-jump moments, but it’s most tantalizing when the three leads are just sitting around the dinner table, having a “friendly” conversation that not everyone is experiencing at the same speed. Gordo is fishing for information; Hall is intelligent but oblivious; Simon is being withholding while trying to appear charming (a specialty of Jason Bateman’s, the actor having spent so much time being charming on sitcoms in the 1980s that he can now concentrate on suggesting infinite shades of darkness behind the smiley fa├žade). Hall, open-hearted and vulnerable with something steely at her core, takes over as the audience’s representative; Robyn learns about the past that Simon and Gordon share as she’s learning things she hasn’t quite processed about her marriage, and the unfolding of the plot turns into her personal wake-up call. Simon, Robin, and Gordon are really the only fully written characters, but Edgerton has been able to cast the subsidiary roles with actors like Alison Tolman (the star of the first season of the TV series Fargo) as Robyn’s sympathetic new neighbor, P. J. Byrne as one of Simon’s co-workers, and Wendell Pierce as a cop. They know how to make a strong impression with a minimum of material, so that the movie keeps a tight focus without feeling under-populated.

The ad campaign for The Gift, with a trailer and a poster that make the most of Edgerton’s opaque, fish-eyed stare, make it look like a late entry in the spate of “fill-in-the-blank from Hell” thrillers (The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Single White Female, The Crush) that choked theater screens in the wake of the godmother of them all, Fatal Attraction. That movie and its knockoffs comprise a deeply reactionary sub-genre that depend on a rigidly narrow definition of “normality” so that any deviation—any sign of eccentricity or strong emotion—will signal that the outsider who becomes the antagonist is a total psychopath who is totally out of his (or, usually, her) goddamn mind. It’s nice to see a movie that does its part to subvert that formula by suggesting that the normal, charming winner may achieve his normalcy by scapegoating others, and that the outsider may have good reason to be pissed off. And with Hall, Edgerton, and Bateman all in top form, at times The Gift is a little like a Harold Pinter play in which the characters finally come out with what’s got them acting so sinister.

– Phil Dyess-Nugent is a freelance writer living in Texas. He has contributed to The A.V. ClubHitFlixNerveHiLobrow, and the New Orleans Times-Picayune, among other publications.

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