Delivering The Right Gift

The Arts



I have a theory about Paula Hawkins’ perfectly acceptable but (to me, anyway) not especially interesting novel  ‘The Girl On The Train’ – its title offered an ironclad guarantee of what was inside. There would indeed be a girl (actually a woman) and she’d be on a train. But there’s also a passivity; she’d see something rather than perform an action. It’s a brilliant title that allowed readers to identify and told them exactly what to expect.

This is about crafting something unexpected, and where it ultimately gets you. To explain, I’m going to use an example.

This year, the films ‘White God’ and ‘Beasts of No Nation’ weren’t the only ones overlooked at the Oscars; genre films rarely get a look-in except in the SFX and craft categories. I make no bones about preferring intelligent genre movies to worthy, manipulative award-chasers like ‘Lincoln’ or ‘The Butler’ – and one of the best I’ve seen in a long while is Australian Joel Edgerton’s ‘The Gift’.

Here’s a brief outline;

It starts like the prelude to a horror film, and indeed, continues to make you think that’s exactly what it’ll be for half an hour. Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman are Robyn and Simon, a perfect couple buying a house in the Hollywood hills and trying for a baby. Then Simon bumps into an old schoolfriend, meek Gordo, clearly a rung down the social ladder. Gordo leaves a gift outside their house, a bottle of good wine, and – you guessed it – gradually insinuates himself into their lives.

The formula is set for a stalker-thriller or perhaps a ‘Harry, He’s Here To Help’-type story. There’s something indefinably creepy about the interloper – he’s played by Australian writer/director Joel Edgerton – and soon he leaves the couple another gift. What do you do if you’re being befriended by someone who isn’t really quite your cup of tea? Invite him for dinner and make it clear that this will be a one-off occasion?

Knowing genre films as I do, I was checking my watch for the screaming and glass-breaking to start. And here’s the kicker; it doesn’t. Edgerton has something far more troubling up his sleeve. You’ve been tricked. And where the story goes from this point has real moral resonance even as it ramps up the thrill-factor.

Of course, if Polanski had made this or if it had been in French, ‘The Gift’ might have got an Oscar nod. Instead it becomes an also-ran – but I couldn’t stop thinking about it for days after.

This is what happens when films and books do something a little bit differently to what readers and audiences expect. ‘The Girl On The Train’ did what it promised. ‘The Gift’ takes a better route. But which pleases the end user more?

This is always my dilemma. If I wanted the really big bucks I’d write something more traditionally formulaic, but it’s not in my nature to do that.

‘White God’ and ‘Beasts of No Nation’ both have unusual subject matter, and will draw intrigued audiences. ‘The Gift’ has a seemingly familiar subject – but it turns out to be not the one people paid to see. The message is clear; Stay on the path and you’ll reap the rewards. Add an original twist and – in today’s deeply conservative times – you won’t get a look-in. ‘The Girl on the Train’ will be a big hit movie. ‘The Gift’ flopped.

5 comments on “Delivering The Right Gift”

  1. slabman says:

    Watched it on your recommendation and loved it. Thanks so much!

  2. Laura says:

    Thank you for the recommendation; I’ve got this on my list to watch. I must add: whenever I’ve watched films you say are worth checking out I have not been disappointed yet.

  3. Wayne Mook says:

    The Gift was a small budget film ($5 mill.) and made over $50 mill mainly Aussie film, it’ll be interesting how the Emily Blunt version of The Girl on the Train does later this year? But safe is usually what pays, sad really but it’s always been like that.


  4. admin says:

    I didn’t realise it was so cheap – it didn’t look it. Let’s have more films like this!

  5. snowy says:

    The film that impressed me last year, [though it was released in 2013], was ‘Last Passenger’. It has a simple premise, “What if you were on a train and the driver decided not to stop?” The film is low budget £2.5M, eevrything about it is competent, but not stellar, shades of a made for TV feel at times. But its pacing is superbly tight*, very little fat on it once it gets past the first 10 minutes. [I saw it cold, no trailer, just picked up the disc for £1 and was pleasantly surprised.]

    There are quite a few low budget films out there that appear and then vanish, [I expect members of the BFI have seen most of them].

    ‘Exam’ [2009] is a people confined in a room film, but with a twist. They are complicit in their confinement, The last to leave is the winner. Not sure what the budget was, it doesn’t quite live up to its ambitions, but there are many worse ways to spend 80 minutes.

    And if that doesn’t ‘tickle your pickle’ then perhaps, The Killing Room [2009] or Unknown [2006], (not the 2011, Liam Neeson film which while decent enough is full of Hollywood cliches.)

    *I think I saw it late at night and possibly after a night out. so I might have been a bit tight myself.

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