Wednesday, August 17, 2016

The Gift of Suspense

If you were asked to name an actor you'd expect to see headlining a psychological thriller, I doubt you'd name Jason Bateman. That unexpected casting is part of the draw for last year's The Gift. The movie is also the directorial debut of actor Joel Edgerton, who himself wrote the script. So there are a lot of subverted expectations going on here right out of the gate.

The Gift follows a married couple, Simon and Robyn, who have recently moved to the L.A. suburbs. Simon used to go to high school in the area, and happens to run into an old classmate, "Gordo," while the couple is out shopping to furnish their new home. There's something creepy about Gordo, who increasingly pushes a friendship Simon isn't willing to reciprocate. Things only get worse from there. Not only does Gordo develop into a full-blown stalker, but Robyn begins to discover buried truths about her husband.

As a less experienced writer and first time director, it seems clear that Joel Edgerton was looking more to find his footing here than to reinvent cinema. He's crafted an engaging and creepy story, but it's one that clearly stands of the shoulders of what has come before. The Gift feels steeped in the work of Alfred Hitchcock, with dashes of Fatal Attraction stirred in. Nevertheless, it's a good homage.

The film proceeds faithfully through its paces, but it does feel fresh in large part thanks to that subversion I mentioned earlier. Jason Bateman thwarted his nice guy image with Bad Words, and now thwarts his comedy image with this. His character of Simon isn't a nice guy -- a fact that's made increasingly clear as the film unfolds -- and it's great to put a face on that character that the audience is otherwise predisposed to like. Meanwhile, Joel Edgerton casts himself as the awkward and creepy Gordo, which contrasts wonderfully with his hyper-masculine characters in Warrior and Zero Dark Thirty.

There are other recognizable performers in the movie too. Rebecca Hall plays Robyn, who becomes the more conventional protagonist in the middle of the film. The couple's life is populated with actors from a variety of TV shows: Allison Tolman (from Fargo), Tim Griffin (from Wayward Pines), and Busy Philipps (from Cougar Town), among others. And in a conspicuous case of not playing against an actor's established image, Wendell Pierce (of The Wire) appears as a police detective.

The Gift is an effective and slightly retro thriller film that fans of the genre should enjoy. I give it a B+.

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