Unflattering antihero | Daily News
Joel Edgerton

Unflattering antihero

The Gift (2015) is essentially about the rottenness of people. Though the movie doesn’t meander to knife attacks and gun shots like most thrillers, the suspense is excruciatingly taut. The director, Joel Edgerton, features himself as a rather unflattering antihero, a relic from the protagonist’s past. Halfway through the story, the roles turn the other way: the protagonist’s past sins redeem the antihero. When the wife of the protagonist discovers those sins and that past, she goes along with the flow, and immediately sympathises with this weirdo who keeps on stalking them.

Edgerton may not fill his frames with oozing vials of suspense, but there are one or two sequences which you can easily miss, and which add up to the denouement at the end, that are so tightly shot, they terrify you when the director makes you revisit them, almost literally, in the final few scenes. The Gift has very little talk, but it delivers.

The first half of the film fits neatly into the framework and formula of a stalker thriller. The protagonists move into a new suburb, far away from the city. Their shift coincides with the prospect of a promotion for the husband at his office. The house falls somewhere in between Frank Lloyd Wright and tropical modernism: it’s full of spaces and glass windows and doors. We hardly see their new neighbours, but the couple adjust to their surroundings. Then, while on a jaunt to the mall one day, they encounter a childhood friend.

Fatal attraction

This is Gordon, played by Edgerton. Gordon is one of those people you can never get enough of. He is awkward, stutters and stammers, and stays on longer than he’s welcome to. He’s the sort of guy you invite to your dinner but who overstays his visit. He doesn’t get your hints: he assumes you want him to stay for as long as he likes. Oblivious to his guests’ convenience, he takes it that the dinner invitation they extended to him was a license for him to keep visiting them and stalking them every day. At least Glenn Close from Fatal Attraction had the sexual infidelities of Michael Douglas for an excuse.

When Edgerton speaks, he murmurs, giving you the idea of a man who has so much hidden beneath, but just can’t put them out. This works wonderfully in a story that portrays him as either a creepy stalker or a sex addict. Until the end of the first half, we wish the best for the family he keeps a tab on: the husband is a successful executive, the wife an aspiring artist, and they’ve already made plans for kids. When Edgerton keeps on visiting them and they are too polite to tell him to get out of their lives, you just wish the couple would let etiquette go hang on the wall and tell him what needs to be told. We are relieved when the man gets Gordon to buzz off, but astonished that Gordon apologises and takes the rebuff so well.

That’s when the second half clocks in. Since I can’t give too many details away, all I will say is that as director, Edgerton has a wonderful sense of how characters feel and how they tend to change. When the man’s wife finally realises the truth behind Gordon’s behaviour and her husband’s involvement in it all, she’s less shocked than betrayed. She confronts the husband about it, but this does little to no good: he keeps on denying the obvious.

Anticlimactic finale

What the marriage needs at this juncture is a patching up, yet no matter what the husband (or wife) does, there’s no stopping the story from reaching its final, climatic, yet anticlimactic, finale. That Gordon is at the centre of it all even when he’s missing for much of the second half is, of course, hard to deny: we feel his presence everywhere. The film is a warning against those who want open spaces for their homes. As for the dog, the less said about what people assume happened to him and what does in fact happen to him, the better.

Wading through The Gift a second time, I realised how terrifyingly the plot unfolds even at the level of the personal and the sexual. The ending is particularly obscene in its depiction of a graphic encounter, but what’s more horrifying is that the woman who figures in the encounter does not take the news of what happened to her badly. We are as shaken by it as her husband, but at this point he has undergone as much a transformation as Gordon, and we no longer want to root for anyone. This is a world inhabited by rotten people, their rottenness lurking beneath a veneer of corporate charm. It takes a weirdo to set things right.

Edgerton made The Gift for five million dollars, rather hefty by Sri Lankan standards, but a modest budget for an American production. By contrast Fatal Attraction, which Edgerton’s movie is often compared to, cost 14 million dollars, not surprising given its all star cast.

The Gift does not have A grade actors, but it contains performances as compelling as anything Michael Douglas or Glenn Close could ever give. Jason Bateman, known more for comedic than for dramatic outings, is intriguing as the husband, but no less effective is Rebecca Hall, whose previous credits include The Prestige and Vicky Christina Barcelona. Of course, both pale before Edgerton, who fits into his childhood moniker “Gordo the Weirdo” with as much sureness as Close did into Alex Forrest, the mother of all serial stalkers.

Conversion therapy

Joel Edgerton has made two films so far. The Gift, released in 2015, revealed a touch of inspiration sorely lacking among most directors of suspense thrillers. Boy Erased, released three years later, is not a suspense thriller, but it reflects Edgerton’s ability to disrupt the underlying mood of a story and take it to a completely different terrain.

The first half-hour of Boy Erased is more or less a survey of an American teenager’s high school life. Yet after the first 30 minutes are up, the direction changes dramatically, and the protagonist begins to grapple with his demons.

Unlike The Gift, Boy Erased is based on a true story: it’s about a teenager who had to face the wrath of his fundamentalist parents when he outed as a gay man. Forced into conversion therapy in a fundamentalist group, headed by an ex-gay man who ironically left it when he realised such therapy does not work, he realises the futility of trying to change = against his own will. The final few scenes are heartbreaking, but also touching: having come to terms with his sexuality, he moves to New York, returns to his parents, and reconciles with his Baptist preacher father.

Apart from these two directorial ventures, Edgerton has acted elsewhere. He was Falstaff in David Michôd’s The King (2019) and the Lord in David Lowery’s The Green Knight (2021). He is particularly effective in the latter, perhaps because many of his credits, such as Antoine Fuqua’s King Arthur (2004) and Ridley Scott’s Exodus: Gods and Kings (2014), have had him play the role of lords, kings, and emperors. Viewing it all from a distance, however, it’s clear his strength lies more behind the camera than in front of it.

This, of course, is why his performance in The Gift works: unlike many filmmakers who direct their acting, he does not let these roles conflict with each other. With Boy Erased, Edgerton has set himself up as a director of promise who chooses not to limit himself to a particular set of themes. It remains to be seen which direction he’ll go in the coming years.

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