The Gift: Writer/director/actor Edgerton astounds in thriller

Meryl Streep isn’t in “The Gift.”

Twenty years ago, the smart independent thriller from writer/producer/star Joel Edgerton would have been something right up Streep’s alley, but just because the performers don’t have top level name recognition doesn’t mean that the relative upstart film isn’t without its merits.

In fact, Australian triple-threat Edgerton provides one of 2015’s most inventive and original films on par with the well-rounded science fiction think-piece “Ex Machina,” starring Domnhall Gleason and Oscar Isaac.

It seems like each and every year, audiences are treated to a smaller film that slips through the studio cracks and barely hits on the cinematic radar only to blow viewers away. Following that logic, if “Ex Machina” is this year’s version of the South Korean sci-fi action hit “Snowpiercer” with Chris Evans, then “The Gift” is the equivalent of “Nightcrawler,” a thought provoking psychological thriller that probably should have netted Jake Gyllenhaal a Best Actor nomination at the most recent Academy Awards.

Since “The Gift” was made by a first time writer-director from a brand-new studio, STX Entertainment, it shouldn’t come as any surprise that audiences haven’t been busting down doors to see Jason Bateman and the criminally underrated Rebecca Hall as a young married couple who moves to Bateman’s old hometown in California only to find themselves stalked by a former classmate of Bateman’s played by Edgerton.

Unfortunately, none of the three performances in “The Gift” dominate the screen like Gyllenhaal’s mesmerizing turn in “Nightcrawler,” but taken as a whole, the trio makes every single frame of the 108-minute thriller shine, leaving audiences on the edge of their seats and checking every lock in their homes at the end of the night.

As the most famous of the three leads, Bateman’s turn as the husband on edge may seem out of character given his usual performances in second-rate comedies like “The Switch,” “Identity Thief” or  “The Change-Up.” However, it’s in the independent work where Bateman can turn off the overdone charm and flex his acting muscles by effortlessly easing into character roles where the former child star works best. In fact, “The Gift” may well be Bateman’s best acting performance of all time and definitely ranks among the best scripts he’s had to work with, which says a lot either about the people writing film roles for him or his personal acting choices.

While Bateman is in top form, he still ends up playing a relative third fiddle to the real stars of “The Gift,” Rebecca Hall as a lonely housewife cooped up in a glass house and Edgerton, whose borderline stalker teeters along the edge of insanity without somehow falling off the ledge. It’s interesting to juxtapose the two performances side-by-side as every nuance of emotion just drips out of Hall’s eyes from scene to scene, whereas Edgerton’s stoic subversion requires him to blankly play scenes with little to no effect in a spot-on attempt to leave audiences wondering just what’s going on in his head.

Watching Hall in scenes alone in the glass house — shot beautifully by Edgerton, who captures every frame as if it were to hang on an art gallery wall — reminds viewers of what it must have been like seeing Audrey Hepburn ward off burglars while blind and alone in the 1967 classic “Wait Until Dark.”

It’s totally okay for viewers to feel like they’ve never seen Edgerton on screen before as he has been melting into roles for several years now. The best part of Ridley Scott’s Biblical epic “Exodus: Gods and Kings,” Edgerton has played small, but critical roles in films like “Zero Dark Thirty” and “The Great Gatsby” and held his own against both Tom Hardy and Nick Nolte in 2011’s captivating mixed martial arts film “Warrior.”

Being the writer/director of “The Gift” gives Edgerton a depth of understanding about his character that is rarely found in these sorts of psychological thrillers.

Hall, Bateman and especially Edgerton do a masterful job of layering complex emotions over the course of the film, leaving viewers in awe without totally blindsiding them at every turn.

The film is greatly aided by a pitch-perfect score from Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, who add a depth of tension to each critical sequence, heightening the drama without going too far into the absurd. Brilliant scene cutting by editor Luke Doolan gives “The Gift” a crisp and fresh feel and helps keep viewers engaged during slower, more character driven scenes.

Without a doubt, “The Gift” is the best film of 2015 that you’ve never heard of. Stop what you’re doing, drive to the nearest theater and see independent filmmaking at its finest. You won’t be disappointed. Scared out of your mind, for sure, but hardly disappointed.

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