Neither bloody nor all that "scary", Joel Edgerton's directorial debut The Gift combines personal concepts such as harrowing school memories, volatile relationships and harmful inner demons to send a shiver down his audiences' spines in an unexpected but intelligently relatable way.
Those who believe they will be treated to a psycho-filled stalk-and-slash with The Gift, given Blumhouse Productions - the horror specialists behind Paranormal Activity, Sinister and Insidious - is involved, may be left sorely disappointed. But those going in with an open mind are sure to be pleased with the innovative approach it takes when it comes to psychological chiller-thrillers, whilst also managing to maintain a homage-like feel to more traditional films that have successfully saturated the genre in the 1980s and 1990s.
Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) are a couple who have moved from Chicago to a secluded spacious house in the hills of Los Angeles to start a new life. He has just bagged himself a new job in his hometown (hence the relocation), meaning Robyn now has to work from home as a designer, after having left her company back in Illinois.
Even in the opening scenes, they are softly spoken, sweetly smiling and attentive to one another, leaving the audience believing they are the perfect couple but their lives soon take an unsettling turn when Simon bumps into old high-school acquaintance Gordo (Edgerton), who seems intent on rekindling his tenuous relationship with his former pal despite the latter's reluctance.
Days after the somewhat awkward exchange, presents begin ominously appearing at Simon and Robyn's front door; each token accompanied by a card from Gordo justifying his reason for giving said gift. Simon soon becomes irritated with Gordo's pushy nature remembering how he was dubbed Weirdo at school, while Robyn, the more compassionate of the pair and a little put-out by Simon's ridiculing behaviour, resolves that he is just trying to make friends.
But after a particularly intense dinner and as the gifts become increasingly extravagant and invasive – buying someone fish and then putting them in their pond for them is a little forward, no? – the couple concludes they must cut their new buddy out of their lives. For good.
But when Gordo sends a rather cryptic letter to their home, apologising for how he has acted and that all he wanted to do was "let bygones be bygones", Robyn grows suspicious of the true nature of the relationship between this man and her husband. And as Simon grows increasingly agitated and bullying whenever the subject of Gordo being brought up, she soon realises the socially awkward man who used to leave them presents on the porch is not the only duplicitous stranger that she may know.
It feels slightly dated in its style but in a good way, feeling reminiscent of classically cool thrillers such as Cape Fear, The Hand That Rocks The Cradle, and Caché, which Edgerton must have drawn inspiration from. Even aesthetically, his copper-haired, hoop-earring-wearing, goateed Gordo feels like he has been lifted straight out of a 1980s movie and it all ties in effectively with the overall feel of the highly stylised piece.
While The Gift is not necessarily terrifying, it does employ similar traits employed frequently in a typical shocker, from numerous jump-scares to looming hallway shots and sinister themes. All film-making aspects that Edgerton never seems to struggle juggling, despite being relatively novice and its commendable that he started out with such a hard genre to crack and succeeded.
But while he is new to helming a picture, he is no stranger to the written side of things. Having already penned 2013 thriller Felony and created the script for the screen adaptation of The Rover the following year, his familiarity with storytelling is evident, as the plot exhibits slow-burning tension from opening scene to finale.
More accurately a psychological thriller than a horror, its scares come secondary to character development and with the emphasis on substance rather than shocks, The Gift's story goes above and beyond most of the pictures that Blumhouse is known for.
The main trio of protagonists, each completely devoid of often suspense-ruining typical tropes are allowed to become anything throughout the whole movie and as not one character appears solely the villain. You are kept questioning what the ultimate outcome will be throughout, as the drama on-screen chaotically but meticulously unravels, knowing exactly when to drop certain plot points.
By abandoning the tradition of having a cookie-cutter hero you root wholeheartedly for, pitted against a motive-less bad guy you wouldn't dream of siding with, it makes it impossible to determine which way the film is going to go and it does wonders for the unease you feel when watching it, as you never know when the film will take a sinister turn.
The effectiveness of the film could justifiably be put down to Edgerton's clear talents as a budding film-maker alone, but in this instance it is fair to say he was obviously helped by the two other leads to render such a dynamic outcome. There are accomplished performances across the board when it comes to the actors portraying them too.
Hall especially, best-known for co-starring in movies such as Iron Man 3, Transcendence and The Town, is really given the time to shine as a woman torn between her husband she grows distant from and a man she knows nothing about, while also carrying Robyn's personal storyline that anchors the humanity of the whole piece.
Usually seen in comedies, Bateman's performance is as impressive as the movie's twists and turns as he channels the snake-like Simon and Edgerton is able to make you feel uneasy just with Gordo's awkwardly long looks or self-deprecrating, slightly fumbled speeches.
At just 108 minutes, nothing about The Gift is unnecessary, which gives it a polished and professional feel. So much so in fact, that you will find yourself wanting more despite the plot being fully, and generally satisfactorily, concluded. It's refreshing to see in the genre, which so often relies on filler scenes that employ the idea of: "You can relax when it's seen to be day time and be prepared for scares when it's night."
Every part of it fuels the story on, making for a steady and unrelenting pace that keeps on surprising you until the very end. Unfortunately (possibly because of the short running time), the final few scenes do come across a little rushed as it tries to depict a somewhat crescendo-like ending but this is only noticeable juxtaposed against the slow-burning and carefully calculated first three-quarters; but when the rest is this strong, you brush over it as quickly as it plays by itself.