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Siraj Syed is the India Correspondent for FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the International Federation of Film Critics. He is a Film Festival Correspondent since 1976, Film-critic since 1969 and a Feature-writer since 1970. 

 

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The Gift, Review: "Simon says watch this film"

The Gift, Review: Simon says watch this film

There’s an old-world fluidity about The Gift. Unhurried narrative, under-the-skin performances, music as an essential component, naturally rich visuals, a critical look at morals and scruples, and a nod to several classic films of the stalker/suspense genre, as well as an outstanding war epic, not to mention a tribute to a popular song. It is more British than American in tone and tenor, though the production house (Blue Tongue) and the writer-director-actor (Joel Edgerton) are Australian. The Gift is a cinematic interpretation of the premise that some bygones do not go away, and that mean streaks in human nature can dwell just below the surface for decades, to operate clandestinely at times, and ruthlessly, at others.

A young married couple, Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn Callen (Rebecca Hall), relocate from Chicago to a suburban Los Angeles neighbourhood, after Simon finds a new job, in an industrial cyber-security company. There, they run into Gordon "Gordo" Moseley (Joel Edgerton), who introduces himself as a former high school class-mate of Simon's, who Simon claims to have completely forgotten. They give him their number, but instead of calling, he finds their address and begins dropping in unannounced, usually when Simon is at work, and keeps sending many gifts, including fish for Robyn (a reputed designer)'s pond.

One night, Gordo invites Simon and Robyn to dinner, at his large and elegant home. Minutes after they arrive, he receives a mysterious phone call from "work" and leaves suddenly, for a few minutes, giving the couple time to mock him and explore the house. They find a closet full of women's clothes, and a children's bedroom, despite Gordo telling them he doesn't have a family. When he returns, and Simon confronts him, Gordo tells them it was actually his wife on the phone; she has recently divorced him and taken off with both his children. Simon finds his story misleading and he tells Robyn to wait in the car, while he ends their friendship. The next day, Robyn returns home from her jogging routine to find the fish in the pond are dead, and their dog missing. Simon immediately suspects Gordo and drives to his house to confront him, only to find out that it was not Gordo's home. Working from home, Robyn begins to suspect that she is not alone in the house, after hearing noises and finding the kitchen tap turned on.

It must be said as credit to Edgerton’s writing skills that he manages to keep you engaged, even as he draws obvious inspiration from Psycho (the bathing scene), Cape Fear and Fatal Attraction (terrorising by relentless stalking) and Old Boy (the 2003 Korean cult movie about bygones from school-days causing mayhem in adult years). In the context of the theme film, and to differentiate it from the French ‘loser’ comedy, The Gift (Le Cadeau/Bankers Also Have Souls, remade in Hindi as Bheja Fry), the original title ‘Weirdo’ was more apt. Two passing references each, to religion and war, make subtle points, without too much provocation. Plot points are cleverly created, sometimes a bit too cleverly. 

Debutant director Edgerton, whose production credits include Loaded, Bloodlock, The Square and Apparition, has directed a short film called The List. Edgerton wrote the screenplays for Bloodlock, The List and The Pitch. Arriving on the feature direction locale, Edgerton paints his characters as persons who genuinely want to be seen as they are, but have other layers that they hide sub-consciously. In this milieu, his choice of the female protagonist and her new-born baby as the hopes of a non-judgemental, purer tomorrow, is important. Notwithstanding one false alarm, when he cuts from an innocent shot to an ear-splitting tearing of adhesive tape, for no apparent reason, he keeps those stock-in-trade, misleading, suspense scenes to a minimum. The way he manipulates audience, and his protagonists’, sympathies shifting from one character to another is commendable.

There are some loose ends, however, they can pass as conscious eschewing of spoon-feeding or even deliberate plays to keep the issue open. “Simon says”, the party-game, is well-woven into the screenplay, punning on the lead actor’s first name. A logical grouse is the long list of coincidences that drive the story forward , and all the moves and risks that Gordo takes working out flawlessly in his favour, against very high odds. Scenes of Robyn jogging and performing household chores do not bear so much repetition. The end is jolting, to say the least, yet, one cannot help thinking that unscrupulous Simon would stop at anything to get his nemesis by the throat, and make him blurt out the truth, rather than die wondering.

Edgerton himself pays an on-screen tribute to Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, with special mention of  the Ride of the Valkyries music score, which is from the second opera in Wagner’s enormous four-opera Ring Cycle. The Valkyries were goddesses of war and battle in European mythology. Mid-air hordes of military helicopters was the closest one could get to flying horses in screen warfare of 1979, and the music formed Coppola’s overture to an attack on a Vietnamese fishing village.

Another curious reference is to Bojangles, which is the name of the Callens’ dog. Mr. Bojangles was the nick-name first used by Bill Robinson, a black tap dancer. After Robinson's success, many black street-dancers became known as ‘Bojangles’. The song with this title was written and originally released by Jerry Jeff Walker, in the mid-'60s, and was released in 1968. Walker said it was a composite, a little bit of several people he met. Over the last 47 years, many artistes have recorded this song, including Bob Dylan, Harry Nilsson, John Denver, Nina Simone, Neil Diamond and Sammy Davis Jr. In the film, Gordo points out that Sammy Davis Jr. usually gets the credit that should rightfully go to Walker.

A producer father, and actresses for sister and wife, give Jason Bateman (Arrested Development-TV, Juno, Hancock, This Is Where I Leave You) good lineage. To star as the good guy, revealed to be an unscrupulous bully, against the director’s own strong portrayal of a confusing, ambivalent man, was no mean task. Jason Bateman does a splendid job. Even more so, considering his origins were in TV comedy shows. English actress Rebecca Hall

(Vicky Cristina Barcelona, Closed Circuit, Transcendence), has the face, physique and voice to interpret Robyn as an entirely honest and virtuous character, even when she is apparently swayed by the irrational generosity of Gordo. Obvious similarities to Transcendence apart, Hall is a power-house of talent.

As actor, Edgerton (Star Wars: Episode II--Attack of the Clones in 2002, Star Wars: Episode III--Revenge of the Sith, Zero Dark Thirty, Warrior) has the most complex role. There are moments when one feels that he’s not even real, just a figment of collective conscience. Benevolence personified, criminal, plotter, sadist, revenge-seeker, and more, Edgerton delineates the overlapping sketch with fine lines. In real-life, Edgerton has often been mistaken for similar-looking fellow Australian actor Sam Worthington, and enjoys giving autographs as such, whenever this happens! Polished support comes from Allison Tolman, Tim Griffin, Busy (not a bad nick-name to have for an actress, if you believe in ‘idle’ worship!) Philipps, Adam Lazarre-White, Beau Knapp, Wendell Pierce and Mirrah Foulkes. A word about Joel’s elder brother, Nash, who has a small role in the film, as Frank Dale: he appeared in Animal Kingdom, as burly Kurt Russell’s stand-in The Thing remake, and as unsung stunt-man in The Matrix, Superman Returns, and Knight and Day. Beating Joel to it, Nash has directed an Australian feature, called The Square, which was produced by good brother Joel.

Music, by Danny Bensi and Saunder Jurriaans, stands-out, without being obtrusive. It helps fill the spaces which merely provide links in the tale, without offering any meat. Equally appreciable is the portrait-like cinematography by Eduard Grau. Editing by Luke Doolan paces the film gently, letting the atmosphere grow on you.      

Now, if we were playing the Simon game, and I was Simon, I would say, “Watch the film. And be patient while it unfolds.”

Rating: ***

Trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bAMybD0PHv

Also uploaded: Fantastic Four!

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About Siraj Syed

Syed Siraj
(Siraj Associates)

Siraj Syed is a film-critic since 1970 and a Former President of the Freelance Film Journalists' Combine of India.

He is the India Correspondent of FilmFestivals.com and a member of FIPRESCI, the international Federation of Film Critics, Munich, Germany

Siraj Syed has contributed over 1,015 articles on cinema, international film festivals, conventions, exhibitions, etc., most recently, at IFFI (Goa), MIFF (Mumbai), MFF/MAMI (Mumbai) and CommunicAsia (Singapore). He often edits film festival daily bulletins.

He is also an actor and a dubbing artiste. Further, he has been teaching media, acting and dubbing at over 30 institutes in India and Singapore, since 1984.


Bandra West, Mumbai

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