The Gift is much more than a boilerplate Hollywood horror film, says Raja Sen.
There is much that can make a gift special.
The thought that, we're repeatedly assured, does count.
The wrapping paper.
All of these things, in their own grand and intangible ways, matter a great deal to the overall experience of receiving a gift, and actor- turned-director Joel Edgerton seizes upon all of these rather skilfully in his directorial debut.
The Gift is about a couple living in a beautiful, cool, far- too-glassy house, a modern work of transparency and minimalism and sharp angles.
One day a gift shows up, accompanied by a note encased in a earthy red envelope.
The gifts keep showing up, and whatever attraction is at play smells significantly fatal -- bunnies might not be killed but a dog does go missing -- and we feel comfortably at home in an atmospheric horror film about how we should indeed look gift horses in the mouth (and certainly not open the door for them).
Except Edgerton's film -- which stars himself, Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall -- doesn't follow the expected path. Sure, a woman takes a shower and the background score is meant to induce chills, but the film follows horror conventions only to seize on a very different kind of horror.
Spoilers would be shameful, but suffice it to say that the scares in The Gift are primarily of an internal nature; this is much more like Michael Haneke's Caché than it is a boilerplate Hollywood horror film.
The performances are all solid, even as each actor starts off somewhere far removed from where they pitch their tents in at the end.
Bateman is perfectly cast as the smug, easily irritated and scowling guy who doesn't want to go out of his way, while Edgerton himself plays a kind of befuddled blankness very well, his loosened jaw hanging open and making him look like the son of Kurt Russell.
Yet this is certainly Hall's film: Two thirds of the story is told from her point of view, as the lonely wife who views the gift-giver with curious, nearly tender interest rather than instant disdain, and she gives the film a wispy vulnerability.
Sure, Edgerton isn't above saying boo a couple of times but, as the dust settles and the plot's intricacies begin to show up, it's hard not to be lulled by the moody cinematography by Eduard Grau and the slowly escalating performances, all of which rely heavily on misleading the viewer, right from the start.
This is because Edgerton is blessedly aware of what remains the single-most important thing about any gift: the surprise.