Old School Thrills
Foremost in the movie marketing arsenal is the humble trailer – once a clumsily assembled batch of clips linked by a baritone voiceover, now a meticulously edited, carefully scored preview of riches to come. Trailer makers are there to polish up the film’s best shots and one liners and fool your brain into becoming aroused. Joel Edgerton’s The Gift, in which he also co-stars, must be the exception. Here the marketing campaign presented the movie as a routine home invasion schlockfest in which a nice middle class couple are stalked by a twitchy high school acquaintance. It’s therefore a shock to watch the full movie and discover it’s a psychologically rich and suspenseful thriller that neatly subverts just about every expectation set by those generic previews. Apparently producers Blum House, put in the odd situation of having a hit on their hands, indeed a movie with a degree of maturity and restraint, weren’t sure how to sell it.
One senses Edgerton had the likes of Hitchcock in mind when crafting a tale designed to toy with audience sympathies. Jason Bateman, well cast as the successful husband who’s a great deal more wary of his old schoolmate than compassionate wife Rebecca Hall, exudes a seriousness and unfriendly air that signals he’s not going to perform the usual role of fighting off a psychopath to protect his fragile spouse in the final reel.
Edgerton, who gives a measured and off kilter performance very much in the Anthony Perkins mode, is suitably unnerving as “Gordo the Weirdo”, but as the plot turns and the relationship between Bateman and Edgerton is excavated, the apparent solidity of the former takes on a sinister dimension, while the latter’s awkwardness becomes a point of potential sympathy. A grateful audience, who expected to be up to their neck in heavy breathing and dog entrails by now, realises there’s a whole other movie sitting beneath the one advertised, trading on our knowledge of genre tropes rather than adhering to them, and as Edgerton incrementally reveals it to us we begin to feel his assured hands on our throat.
Edgerton the director, like his on screen counterpart, keeps his powder dry for most of the running time, allowing the movie’s surprises to provide the pyrotechnics. The problem is how to deliver a satisfying conclusion to a tricksy screenplay and here, like many before him, the debut director errs, just tipping into the schlock that he’s so successfully kept at bay for so long.
However one can forgive a movie that puts its characters front and centre and has a mind to subvert cliché while providing a story rich in human interest, with the most ugly aspects of the human condition poked with a shit clad stick. If Edgerton can produce similar levels of intrigue in future, trusting himself to follow though without resorting to low rent stunt complications, then he could very well be a thriller director to watch.