It’s too often that filmmakers mistake what’s disgusting or startling for what’s truly unsettling. If a horror movie or thriller needs to raise the stakes for its hero or freak out the audience, there’s an easy solution: Kill the friend. Gore the dog. Fill a bathtub with blood and guts. The Gift, the new film from writer-director-star Joel Edgerton, effectively sees what other films in the genre do for their scares, shakes its head, and says, “No, no, no. I’ll show you messed up.” But the real joy of The Gift is getting to that twisted goodness, because more than anything, Edgerton’s script and direction demonstrate a keen understanding of tension and what puts an audience on edge.

The film begins with Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), a married couple who have had their share of ups and downs, riding a recent up—a big promotion for Simon—into a new mid-century modern home, which has lots and lots of windows. The unnerving lack of privacy is a simple detail that immediately sets the tone—and pays off handsomely later on—as the couple coincidentally runs into an old classmate of Simon’s, Gordo (Edgerton). But what begin as kind, neighborly gestures on Gordo’s part morph into something vaguely sinister as he repeatedly shows up at the house unannounced and makes reference to an unresolved incident in his shared past with Simon.

Is Gordo a creep who needs to just go away? Or is he a sadly misunderstood loner in desperate need of some reciprocated kindness? The Gift takes its time answering the questions it poses, while tackling bigger ideas about the past’s role in the present and how we justify our privilege in relation to misfortune in the lives of others. The mystery around Gordo’s intentions develops slowly enough for the audience to identify with both Robyn’s and Simon’s points of view, and a lot of the credit belongs to Hall and Bateman. She is sharp and compassionate. He has a cynical wit that’s too charming to fully trust. Each is perfectly cast and freed by roles that aren’t dumbed down to make way for the surprise-filled plot.

From start to finish, The Gift is impeccably structured—everything from the sound design to the framing works toward a singular, unsettling goal. And if there has to be one takeaway, it’s that Hollywood needs more from Joel Edgerton, who’s making his feature directorial debut. Through his deliberate pacing, believable character work, and masterful understanding of cinematic suspense, Edgerton proves that The Gift shouldn’t be the last present he gives to us.

The Gift
  • TV Show