With ‘The Gift’, Joel Edgerton Becomes One Of Australia’s Most Exciting New Filmmakers
We spoke to Edgerton about his new movie and the directing tips he's picked up from the best.
What if Joel Edgerton, moderately famous and internationally recognisable Australian leading man, is actually one of our most exciting local filmmakers? That scenario will become a little less hypothetical after the Thursday release of Edgerton’s feature directorial debut The Gift, a sneakily nasty psychological thriller that firmly establishes his chops as a director while also confirming his status as one of the canniest screenwriters around.
The film follows recently relocated Los Angeles couple Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), who are out shopping for homewares when they run into an old school mate of Simon’s, the awkward, dweeby Gordo (played by Edgerton). The renewed association isn’t entirely welcome, but Gordo proves difficult to extract from their lives, turning up unannounced and leaving unwanted gifts on their doorstep. Slowly but surely the situation goes sour, and then, as Edgerton proves a deft hand at escalating tension, it goes deeply sinister, in ways that really shouldn’t be spoiled.
Edgerton stages this creeping psychodrama largely within the confines of Simon and Robyn’s luxe new home in the LA hills; an airy, mid-century modern confection with more windows than walls. As a statement of taste on the part of the couple, it’s a symbol of upwardly mobile Simon’s ambitions for their new life. As a film location, it’s the perfect site for an especially cruel illustration of the old lesson about people in glass houses and stones.
“The Films Are Very Domestic”
The Gift is the third feature script by Edgerton to reach the screen, after The Square, a noir thriller from 2008 (co-written with Matthew Dabner, and directed by Edgerton’s brother Nash, an exciting filmmaker in his own right), and Felony, a police drama from 2013 (directed by Matthew Saville). Taken together, the three films reveal Edgerton to be skilled writer with a gift for steel-trap plotting and a stern moral sense.
They’re almost a variation on the same theme, using genre flourishes to tell twisty morality tales about seemingly decent suburban husbands whose lives fall apart after they makes some ethically dubious choices. Looking back, Edgerton says the three films are about the “struggle on a daily basis between being a good person or a bad person, and how it can change just by one action.”
“[W]hat do you do after doing a bad thing? Do you then do the right thing, or do you keep doing the wrong thing?”
In spite of their genre elements, the films are also persuasively life-sized, which means that their disturbing turns hit that much closer to home. “I’m always putting things through the reality filter as much as I can”, he says. “In many ways all the films are very domestic. [W]hen characters are arguing they’re still doing the dishes”.
Edgerton’s scripts excel at putting the screws to their central characters. Even when things get bloody and violent—and they do—he has an ability to make sure that his characters’ actions are situationally and psychologically convincing. He’s got a knack for the grim cause and effect of good-men-gone-bad stories that recalls the Coen Brothers at their cruellest.
Edgerton cites films like the recent revenge thriller Blue Ruin (2013) and In the Bedroom (2001) as having a particular affinity to his work. “One of the things that seems to happen in all of those screenplays is that these characters build up this shit – they end up with so much clutter based on their attempt to get out of their situation in the wrong way, but at the end of the day they’re left to make choices by themselves. Suddenly, all that clutter goes away, all the doors are open, and the police disappear, and accountability from outside disappears, and they’re left with the silence of their own choices, to then decide what to do next. I always found that interesting.”
“Ultimately what I’m trying to say is that at the end of the day our punishment and our judgment come from ourselves. And that’s the worst place it can come from. We can forgive ourselves, we can learn to move forward, but we can also be our own prison.”
“The Smartest Guy In The Room”
The Gift also offers a truly plum role for Jason Bateman, an actor whom you wouldn’t typically expect to turn up in this sort of thriller. As Simon he gives the kind of performance that could get pegged as career-redefining, except that he doesn’t need to step outside of his range, he just has to burrow deeper.
“I knew he would be great,” Edgerton says, “but there were a couple of scenes where he really went beyond what I expected in a way that made me feel really privileged, like I was discovering some great secret.”
In his comedy work—and especially in the career-reviving Arrested Development—Bateman excels at playing the straight man: the rational, reasonable centre of a whirlwind of other peoples’ dysfunction. It’s an affect that occasionally, and strategically, slides into outright dickishness. One of the slyest recurring jokes throughout the run of Development was how Bateman’s Michael, ostensibly the one sane member of the Bluth clan, was just as manically self-absorbed at the rest. As Simon, he gets to take this straight man persona and push it toward some uncomfortable places.
“[Bateman] has the ability to be the smartest guy in the room—who you really like and trust—but at the same time, with one comment, he can judge and cut people down”, Edgerton says. “All the evidence was there, in all his other performances. The exciting part was that it’s sort of a misdirect for the audience: here’s this guy who we like, who we like laughing at, and then allowing his character to take us somewhere really dark.”
Bateman’s character also draws out some of the film’s meatiest thematic material. In fact, The Gift has one of the most incisive depictions of a very specific kind of male privilege of any film in recent years. As Edgerton’s script neatly draws out, Simon behaves as though other peoples’ misfortunes are solely their own problem – an attitude that helpfully absolves him of any responsibility for his impact on their wellbeing.
Thanks to Edgerton’s careful dialogue, even a simple line like “Everything good?”—posed to Robyn by Simon—carries a sharp, psychologically fraught edge, because of what it assumes about the possibility of things being not good. Edgerton says this tension was baked into the film’s approach from the start. “We wanted in a gentle way, a subtle way, not only to talk about bullying, and those roles we play in school, but how we evolve in our adult life – how bullying is really rife in a relationship, even in the most subtle, subversive ways.”
Although this is Edgerton’s first feature as a director, he is by no means unseasoned. He’s got a couple of shorts under his belt (The List from 2008, and Monkeys from 2011) and has recently been taking a firmer hand in shepherding his writing onto the screen, taking a producing role on Felony.
Edgerton is part of the Blue-Tongue Films group, a highly collaborative crew of filmmakers that includes his brother Nash, as well as director David Michôd. Blue-Tongue has produced all of Edgerton’s feature scripts, as well as Michôd’s Animal Kingdom (2010) and The Rover (2014), on which Edgerton has a story credit.
In addition, as a moderately famous actor he’s had a front row seat to examine the processes of notable auteurs like Baz Luhrmann, who directed him as Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby (2013), and Ridley Scott, who cast Edgerton (to some controversy) as the pharaoh Ramses in Exodus: Gods and Kings last year.
“Directors don’t usually get to watch other directors direct. They go to a set for maybe a few hours. But [as an actor] I’m there for the duration, and if you open your eyes and open your ears there’s so much you can learn, good and bad. Not just on a filmmaking level, but on a personable level: how they relate to their crew. I learned a lot from Baz Luhrmann. The interesting thing I realised was how far gratitude gets you. He has more gratitude than anybody I’ve ever met, and that makes him a great general.”
“In the last four years I feel like a part of me has been undercover as an actor,” Edgerton says, “just stealing the good qualities and understanding how directors make movies.”
Undercover no longer, and with an impressive group of features already behind him, it’s now clear that Edgerton is building one of the most crafty and consistent bodies of work in recent Australian cinema.
The Gift is released on August 27
James Robert Douglas is a freelance writer and critic in Melbourne. His work has been found in The Big Issue, Meanland, Screen Machine, and the Meanjin blog. He tweets from @jamesrobdouglas.