‘Got to Give the People What They Want’ by Jalen Rose

November 3, 2015 in Basketball, Book Reviews, Indiana Pacers, NBA, Reviews, Sport by pacejmiller


Jalen Rose never fails to give the people what they want!

My second-favourite basketball player from the Pacers’ glory years (no prizes for guessing who is No. 1), Rose has since retirement turned himself into arguably the best and most successful pro-turned-analyst covering the NBA. His Jalen and Jacoby ‘Pop the Trunk’ podcast is responsible for getting me into podcasts in the first place, and I still get a little giddy whenever I see that a new episode is out.

And so when I heard he was finally releasing a biography, Got to Give the People What They Want: True Stories and Flagrant Opinions from Center Court, I was naturally ecstatic. Anyone who has listened to Jalen on his podcasts or seen him on ESPN will know that he is a phenomenal storyteller who is never afraid to speak his mind and tell it like it is (notwithstanding the “don’t get fired” caveat he and Jacoby like to spew). Having been an affable dude throughout both his basketball and media careers, Jalen has maintained connections at every level throughout the entire league, and the insider sources and classic vignettes he has stored up are second to none.

Jalen & Jacoby

Jalen & Jacoby

Got to Give the People What They Want is a fantastic read. It’s filled with wonderful insights into basketball and life, great stories and laugh-out-loud moments. Those who are avid fans of Rose, like myself, might be a little disappointed because we may have heard a lot of the best parts before, probably on his podcast, but on the whole the vast majority of readers will be thoroughly satisfied by the fascinating experience this book offers. Importantly, you know he wrote this book himself and no through some ghostwriter, because his unique and familiar voice permeates every page.

GTGTPWTW is a surprisingly straightforward autobiography in a lot if ways. Following a delightful foreword from “The Podfather”, his good friend and now @HBO Bill Simmons, the book is split into four quarters, just like an NBA game. The first quarter details his tough childhood in Detroit, living with his single mother and never knowing his famous father, former No. 1 overall pick Jimmy Walker. This is the part of the book where we learn about his influences growing up and how he very well could have gone down the wrong path. It’s quite a cliched story by NBA standards, but it’s nonetheless captivating because Rose knows how to tell a story better than most.

The second quarter, the college years, was to me the most interesting because I didn’t follow Rose when he was tearing it up as a member of the legendary Fab Five at Michigan along with future NBA stars Chris Webber and Juwan Howard. The crazy thing is, even after all he did in his NBA and media career, most people probably still associate Rose most with the Fab Five, a group of brash, cocky freshmen who lit up the NCAA and set fashion trends while relishing the same bad boy image brandished on Rose’s heroes, the 80s Detroit Pistons.

The Fab Five

The Fab Five

Ever wanted to know what college recruiting visits are like? Ever wondered what it’s like being a college star athlete? Ever wondered what really happened with that fatal Chris Webber timeout against North Carolina in that championship game? Ever wondered why the legacy Fab Five was really erased from history? This is the part of the book with all the answers. Even if you think you know it all there are still interesting tidbits and surprises to be found.

I think it’s great that Jalen doesn’t hold back on his thoughts about the NCAA’s rules against student athletes seeing a dime of the billions of dollars being poured into colleges around the country, especially when it is the students generating all the revenue. And no, he doesn’t think it’s enough that they get free tuition through scholarships. A lot of compelling food for thought.

The third quarter of the book is Jalen’s NBA career, which amazingly never culminated in a single All-Star appearance despite being one of the two best players on a perennial Eastern Conference finalist and a once-off NBA Finals participant. As some of you might know, Jalen started off in Denver before heading to Indiana in a trade involving Mark Jackson (who returned later to the team) and spent a couple of years under Larry Brown. It’s well-known that the two did not see eye to eye, and Jalen has no problem spilling what he thinks of the Hall-of-Fame coach. It wasn’t until Larry Bird arrived that Jalen’s career began to blossom, and it’s no secret how much respect and gratitude he has toward the man they call The Legend.

Two legends

Two legends

The thing that sticks out most in this chapter, apart from his pearls of wisdom on trash talking and “champaigning and campaigning”, is the amount of politics that goes on in the NBA, from the locker room all the way to the front office and beyond. It’s on of the reasons why Jalen’s career turned out the way it did, and why he would go from star player to journeyman in the latter half of his career, bouncing from Indiana to Chicago to Toronto to Phoenix to New York.

The final quarter of the book details life after basketball and Jalen’s new career as an analyst for ESPN. He actually started it when he was still a player in the league and it’s inspirational to see how hard to works at this job as well. He definitely isn’t one of those athletes who fell into the job because of his fame — he went out there and earned the respect and proved the doubters wrong.

Like I said earlier, plenty of wild stories and serious opinions grace the pages of this book. A good chunk of them, however, you would have heard before on “Story Time with Jalen Rose” and/or on the podcast, such as the time he was shot at in LA, or the time he stole Patrick Ewing’s TV. The time he tried to “Jalen Rose” Kobe Bryant in the Finals by sticking his foot under the Mamba after a jumpshot and the ultimate payback in the 81-point game years later are of course also covered.

One of the most prominent aspects of the book — it’s referred to repeatedly throughout — is the Jalen Rose Leadership Academy, a successful charter school he founded in Detroit. He’s actually actively running it and not just sticking his name in for publicity, and it’s impressive to see how much he believes in giving back to the community.

It’s also clear that the rift with Chris Webber continues to bug him. I’ve followed this feud for years and honestly it doesn’t reflect too well on Webber, to put it nicely. Still, despite Webber being the one who called the time out and lied to the grand jury and stuffed everything up for the Fab Five, Jalen is the one who wants to let bygones be bygones, and it’s CWebb who can’t man up about his mistakes to move on.

Truth be told, I wish this book, at 288 pages, could have been at least twice as long. I know how hard it is to write a book and how much harder it is to remember stuff from your past that happened 10, 20, 30 years ago, but I wanted even more juicy details. Some parts of the book just felt too brief and glossed over — the basic structure was there but I wanted more meat on the bones. And I’m sure there was probably more he wanted to say but he may have gotten a few “don’t get fired” warnings from his publisher or his agent. What a shame.

Nevertheless, for most non-hardcore fans, GTGTPWTW is an instant classic of the basketball bio genre. An inspirational story, a remarkable life, and loads of awesome stories and anecdotes about basketball from the youth leagues to the pros. This is a book that will entertain, educate, make you laugh, and make you think and challenge our understanding of not just basketball but the wider world around us.


PS: And yes! He does reveal why he carries that bat around. But you have to read the book for yourself to find out!

PPS: After seeing Jalen Rose in person a  few years ago when he accompanied the Pacers to Taiwan for an exhibition against the Rockets, I decided to join the wave and name my yet-to-be-born second son after him. My hope is that, apart from being a kick-ass basketball player, he can grow up to be like his namesake, an observant and articulate leader, someone who gives back to his community, doesn’t hold grudges and has a grateful attitude towards life. So thanks for the shout out in the book, Jalen.

‘The Man Who Heard Voices’ by Michael Bamberger

October 30, 2015 in Book Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

man who heard voices

I haven’t been reading as much as I would like to this year. First I thought it was just laziness, but I’ve realised it’s because there hasn’t been a book that’s made me want to devour it like a rabid dog.

That changed when I came across — almost by accident — The Man Who Heard Voices: Or How M Night Shyamalan Risked His Career on a Fairy Tale by Sports Illustrated writer Michael Bamberger. The book flew completely under my radar when it was released in 2006, the same year as Lady in the Water was released. However, with the recent release of Shyamalan’s so-called “return to form” film, The Visit (review here), articles referencing the book started popping up all over the place. They were mainly to remind us what an awful film Lady in the Water is, and to take digs at Shyamalan for being a megalomaniac who thinks his shit don’t stink.

So in all I honesty, I was looking forward to reading the book so that I could gain a better understanding and of just how much of a douchehole Shyamalan truly is. Now that I’ve read the book, I can say this about him: I’ve never been a bigger fan.

First off, some general background about how the book came into being. Bamberger met Shyamalan at a party in 2004 and became fascinated with the “it” director of the time. Night (the English name he made up himself) was still riding high from the phenomenon that is The Sixth Sense and follow-up successes such as Unbreakable and Signs. His latest film at the time was The Village, a moderate success that polarized some viewers but remains one of my Shyamalan favorites.

Anyway, Bamberger asked Night if he could follow him around and write an independent account of the making of the next Shyamalan project, Lady in the Water, based on a bedtime story about a “water nymph” the writer-director tells his two young girls. Night said yes, and, and The Man Who Heard Voices was born.

The book itself turned out very different to what I was expecting. Bamberger is a good writer who tries to keep himself out of the picture unless his opinion as an integral part of the experience is called for. Through observing on set and interviews, he gets into the heads of key people – most of all Shyamalan – involved in the making of the film and delves deep into their thinking and motivations. At first you wonder whether he’s just making stuff up, but he eventually explains that if he describes what a person is thinking it’s because that’s what the person has told him.


Night with his star Paul Giamatti

For people who have ever wondered what it is really like behind the scenes of a movie set, this is the book for you. I’ve never come across any book that gives practically a blow-by-blow narrative of exactly how a film is made, beginning with the writing of the script to workshopping it, from pitching it to a studio to meetings with studio executives, from selecting each member of the team in pre-production (we’re talking cinematographer, cameraman, set designers, special effects designers, music writers, script managers, caterers, stand-ins – the list goes on and on) to building the sets, from auditioning the actors to contract negotiations. I’ve always wondered how cool it would be to direct a Hollywood blockbuster, but this book has definitively put all such fantasies to rest. It’s exhausting; shooting 12-14 hours a day with random start times, braving the elements (in this case the scorching Philadelphia summer), managing all the personalities and egos, controlling the budget and dealing with studio politics. Even the most organised person can be overwhelmed.

For me, reading an in-depth account of a film production from start to finish was intoxicating stuff, though I can understand how it can be boring for others. The only feedback given to Bamberger by Shyamalan, who wanted the book to be completely independent, was to take out “the boring bits,” meaning the nitty gritty of the production process. Bamberger said he tried, and I think his writing style is conducive to a swift and enjoyable read. But that’s just me.

Now for the good stuff – what the book revealed about Shyamalan and the crew. Well, as expected, Shyamalan does come across as a dude with a massive ego and immense self-belief. However, he is also revealed to be quite fragile, suggesting a sense of low self-esteem. The contradiction is not unlike another genius I worship – Larry David.

In a way, it’s not hard to understand why Shyamalan turned out the way he did. Both his parents are doctors from India, and they always wanted him to get a “real” job like being a doctor or lawyer. Even when Shyamalan boastfully told his father that he had become the first director to grace the cover of Newsweek, his father’s response was that Time had a wider circulation.

My affection for Shyamalan comes from his hard work and pure balls. The book tells the story of his big break, The Sixth Sense, which was the ultimate example of betting on yourself. Shyamalan had made a couple of largely ignored indy films for Hollywood heavyweight Harvey Weinstein, who thought very little of him. Night hated Weinstein’s interference, but he was contractually bound, so he thought of a bold and brilliant plan. He made sure the script for The Sixth Sense was so awesome that there would be a bidding war for it by the major studios. He sent it to all of them – except Weinstein, who received it later – at the same time and staged a make-or-break auction soon after. He gambled on the possibility that a top studio would pay so much money for the rights to make The Sixth Sense that Weinstein would scoff at matching it and let him go. He won when Disney offered US$3 million despite the condition that Shyamalan himself would direct, and the rest is history. The film would go on to gross more than US$670 million on a US$40 million budget.

Reading this book, you get an amazing sense of Shyamalan’s dedication to his craft. I know it sounds phony and pretentious, but he really sees his work as “art”, and he wants to suffer for it. I’ve only seen Lady In the Water once (I plan to see it again) and thought it was a piece of shit, but I respect and even envy his ambition and the amount of effort he put into the film, as misguided as it was. It also shows that, no matter how much a project can seem promising on paper or during its making, you can never tell how it’s going to be received once it is released.

Paul Giamatti from a scene in Lady in the Water

Paul Giamatti as Cleveland Heep in Lady in the Water

Shyamalan is also portrayed in the book as a loving father and a generous and thoughtful director. On the set of Lady he had weekly prizes – such as overseas vacations – picked out of a hat for staff, and all of it came out of his own pocket.

On the flip side, there’s no denying that Shyamalan can come across as a complete dick because of his bloated sense of self-importance. Being called the “next Spielberg” can do that to some people. This is a guy who got his assistant to send a hard copy of his script to the homes of Disney execs at the exact same time like it was God’s gift to the world, and questioned their devotion when one of them wasn’t there on time because she had to take her kid to a weekend party.

Bamberger tells it as it is and doesn’t sugar coat it. Night thought of himself as a visionary on the same level as artists like Bob Dylan, and wanted to be the Michael Jordan of the film world (more on Night’s basketball exploits later). There was one incident in the book where Night shared an elevator with a mother and son who didn’t know who he was and had little interest in making small talk with him despite his best efforts. Afterwards, he says that if only the mother knew who he was she’d be clamouring to get her son into one of his movies, and lamented how people don’t “connect” with others anymore.

There was another incident in the film when leading lady Bryce Dallas Howard (whom he made a star in The Village) was getting cuts and welts from being dragged on grass during filming.

“This is not about you. This is about the movie,” Night told her. He was apparently more worried about continuity problems. “I can’t have a reputation as a director who doesn’t protect his actors.” Yes, Night, it’s always about you.

One interesting fact I discovered from reading this book was that Shyamalan is a huge basketball fan and can even ball a little. I think he’s around 5’11” and was likened by Bamberger to a solid high school point guard. Living in Philly, he was actually a neighbour of Allen Iverson and the two often saw each other playing on their respective driveways with their respective cousins or nephews. And apparently, Night once said that if he had unlimited time to practice for two years, he’d be able to shoot as well as any player in the NBA. Like I said, balls.

The now-legendary Disney blow-up during negotiations for Lady was also described in painstaking detail in the book, and it’s not as bad as proclaimed. If you don’t know the background, Disney had produced all of Night’s films since The Sixth Sense, but for Lady he ended up going with Warner Bros. Interestingly, the guy who picked it up from Warner because he loved The Village, Alan Horn, is now the chairman of Disney.

The truth of the split from Disney was much tamer. The went to a dinner where the execs told him they didn’t “get it,” but were still willing to give him US$60 million to do whatever he wanted out of goodwill. Too late. To Night, having someone say they didn’t get his art meant they “no longer valued individualism” and cared more about the bottom line. For him, it wasn’t about the box office; it was about their belief in him. He was more disappointed than angry. He was really only angry after Disney came out with a statement that they had parted ways due to “creative differences.” In reality, it wasn’t the hostile break-up it has been made out to be. Disney was hurt Night didn’t want to reconsider; Night thought he had no choice but to leave. Both sides thought they were the loser in the situation.

As for the other characters in the book, Paul Giamatti, the lead actor who played protagonist Cleveland Heep, comes out looking best. He’s shown as a down-to-earth guy, a humble dude who likes to act but doesn’t want to be a star. I had no idea his late father was the former commissioner of the MLB.

Bryce Dallas Howard

Bryce Dallas Howard

Bryce Dallas Howard, daughter of Hollywood heavyweight Ron, is depicted as more of a mixed bag by Bamberger. She’s well-intentioned but comes across as a little phony; she’s sweet and true to herself with all her vegan philosophies and enviable determination to prove her worth, but is never able to shake off that weird privileged hippy wannabe vibe.

The other crew member who gets a lot of mentions is Chris Doyle, the Hong Kong-based, Chinese-speaking Aussie cinematographer. He’s an amazing character – a flamboyant genius and habitual line-stepper with his over-sexualized antics and alcohol problems. Reading about how Night manages this ticking time bomb on set is one of the most compelling aspects of the entire book.

The book actually ends without any discussion of how Lady in the Water actually performed. All we know is that Night surveyed 40 advanced screening subjects and was shocked to discover that it was his best-performing film since The Sixth Sense. Bamberger himself said he didn’t like the movie.

Well, Lady in the Water grossed US$72.8 million against a US$70 million budget, excluding the cut going to cinemas and tens of millions in marketing expenses. It got 24% on Rotten Tomatoes and a 36/100 at Metacritic. Night won for Worst Director and Worst Supporting Actor at the Golden Raspberries (beaten out by Basic Instinct II). Asian-American actress Cindy Cheung, who played Young-Soon Choi in the movie, won Worst Supporting Actress and Most Annoying Fake Accent at the Stinkers Bad Move Awards.

Shyamalan would go on to make The Happening with 20th Century Fox in 2008, which performed even worse with critics but was a financial success, making more than US$163 million against a US$48 million budget.

The Last Airbender (Paramount) in 2010 was Shyamalan’s nadir in terms of critical failure – 6% on Rotten Tomatoes and 20/100 on Metacritic. But surprisingly, it was still a financial success, making US$320 million on a US$150 million budget. And for all the jokes about After Earth in 2013 (11% on RT, 33/100 MC), the film still made US$244 million against a US$130 million budget on the back of moderately successful box office intake overseas.

And now, Night appears to be back. He directed the pilot of the TV show Beyond the Pines, which was well received. The Visit has been huge, making US$66 million already on US$5 million budget and with a 62% rating on RT and 55/100 score on MC. It’s his best-performing film, critically speaking, since Signs in 2002.

I’ve gotten a bit off track, so back to the book. The Man Who Heard Voices is a fascinating book and a wonderful insight into both Shyamalan and his filmmaking process. Interestingly, I have read some reviews that question why Shyamalan didn’t object to the publishing of the book because it paints him in such a bad light, and others that suggest the book is effectively a hagiography. I don’t believe either is true. While it is obvious that Bamberger has a soft spot for Shyamalan in his heart – why else would he write a book on him – he does, for the most part, divulge the bad and the ugly along with the good. My takeaways from the book are: nobody is perfect; making a film is a lot of work; excessive praise has never done anyone any good; you can be a dickhead but also a great director; hard work and determination pays off; and that you never know how a film will be received no matter how magical the production process may have been.


Movie Review: The Curse of Downers Grove (2015)

September 1, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller


I was quite shocked to discover that The Curse of Downers Grove is written by Bret Easton Ellis, author of one of my favourite books of all-time, American Psycho. Yes, it has that brutal violence Ellis is known for, but in terms of logic and common sense, it’s as though the script was written by Patrick Bateman.

Starring not one but two Aussie starlets, the film is marketed as a supernatural horror about a curse that kills one senior student at Downers Grove High School every year. In reality, the curse is nothing but a red herring, as the bulk of the 90-minute film is a violent teen psychological thriller in the vein of something closer to Cape Fear — where the protagonist is forced to defend herself against an insidious miniacal threat.

The protagonist in this case is Chrissie (played by Neighbours alum Bella Heathcote), who against her better judgment ends up going to a party with her skanky best friend (played by fellow Aussie Penelope Mitchell), where she fights off the sexual advances of a local football star Chuck (played by Kevin Zegers). This sets off a chain reaction in which Chrissie, her brother and her friends become the victims of stalking, threats and abuse at the hands of Chuck and his drugged-up goons, while his typical sports dad (Tom Arnold) keeps his cop buddies at bay.

So The Curse of Downers Grove is a completely different film to what it is being promoted as, which I find strange because teen supernatural horrors are a dime a dozen these days while teen psychological thrillers are rarer and arguably more intriguing.

In any case, the film just doesn’t work. While there are moments of tension, the narrative is all over the place. None of the things any of the characters do in the film make any sense whatsoever, and the two worst culprits are the most important characters to the story, Chrissie and Chuck. It’s hard to list example without giving away plot spoilers, but let me just say that it’s easier to count the instances where their actions and decisions make sense than those that don’t. Normal human beings don’t act in this way, even extremely stupid and naive ones. And yet the film had me wondering whether there was some kind of psychotic fantasy thing going on because no characters were behaving rationally. It didn’t help that there were occasional flashes of what appear to be random visions that had no reason to be in the film at all.

This weird, jarring experience is capped off by a grotesquely violent third act that’s also full of logic gaps before a pretty obvious “twist” ending brings the whole mess to a merciful end. I don’t know what Ellis and director Derick Martini were aiming for here, though it feels like a waste of a talented cast. I think Bella Heathcote has real star potential. She was a standout in the 2012 big screen adaptation of Dark Shadows and has the unique look and acting abilities to take her fame to the next level, which is bound to happen after she stars as Jane Bennett in the upcoming Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. I also quite like Kevin Zegers, who always plays fantastic bad-boy types and will always be remembered by me for snapping his legs sideways and then getting devoured by wolves in the underrated 2010 horror Frozen, not to be confused with the highest-grossing animated film of all time.

Alas, The Curse of Downers Grove turned out to be a frustratingly crap film. There are elements that appear promising, but Ellis’s lunacy and Martini’s ability to shape it into a logical coherent experience killed whatever chance it might have had.

1.75 stars out of 5

Movie Review: Child 44 (2015)

September 1, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

child 44

I remember first seeing Tom Rob Smith’s Child 44 in a bookstore, reading the back cover, and thinking to myself that the story will likely make a great movie. Stalinist Russia, a child killer on the loose — what’s there not to like?

Hollywood execs clearly agreed with me, and that’s why we now have the film adaptation of Child 44 by Daniel Espinosa (Safe House), starring the always-brilliant Tom Hardy as an MGB officer at the center of the story. Playing his wife is the original Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Noomi Rapace, whom Hardy previously worked with on The Drop. Rounding out the superb cast are Robocop Joel Kinnaman, Gary Oldman and the ubiquitous Aussie Jason Clarke.

All the ingredients for a brilliant political mystery thriller are there, but for whatever reason, Child 44 turned out to be a mild disappointment. It’s one of those films where you keep watching intently, expecting it to get better and blow you away at any second, but all you end up doing is wait and wait and wait, until suddenly you realise it’s all over and none of your expectations were met. And that’s not a good feeling after you just sat through 137 minutes.

I sense that some of the blame must go to the story itself. It’s actually very misleading to market this film as being about the hunt for a child serial killer. In reality, Child 44 is a political thriller with a tangential child serial killer subplot. The “mystery” is something that’s always lingering in the background, something the film comes back to repeatedly, but is never the focal point. Instead, the vast majority of the film is about depicting the terror of Stalinist Russia — how you always need to keep an eye over your shoulder, how people and the state can turn on you at any second; never knowing who to trust; the constant fear and paranoia.

As for the killer? There’s never really a proper investigation. There’s no real mystery, no shocking revelations. It’s just some guy who suddenly shows up halfway through and is revealed to audiences as the killer. I also had some trouble understanding the motivations behind Hardy’s and Rapace’s characters wanting so badly to find the killer. They don’t even have children and they have enough life-and-death problems of their own to deal with. As a result it’s almost like the whole child killer thing is just a hook to suck people in. It’s a red herring.

That said, I shouldn’t be penalising Child 44 for not being the type of film I anticipated. On the plus side, it is quite effective in its depiction of that period of history, and Tom Hardy delivers a superb performance as the complex protagonist. I also wasn’t as distracted as some people have been by the Russian-accented English — or at least the varied attempts at it — as I accepted early on that it’s just something viewers have to live.

What fails the movie, however, is a lack of genuine intrigue and sustained tension. There are perhaps too many subplots, none of which manage to gather any momentum. It’s just not that interesting, a shocker considering that the book is considered to be a riveting page-turner. And that’s a shame, because I’m sure there’s a compelling story buried in there somewhere.

On the whole, Child 44 isn’t terrible. It’s a solid production with strong performances, but it’s also quite a dull adaptation that is unable to bring out the most of the fascinating premise and whatever it is that made the book such a supposedly compulsive bestseller.

2.5 stars out of 5

Movie Review: The Gift (2015)

August 29, 2015 in Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller


I’ve always been a big fan of Joel Edgerton, one of the most underrated and talented actors to come out of Australia in recent years. And I’ve now become a super huge fan after seeing his directorial debut, The Gift, a seemingly cookie-cutter suburban thriller that’s anything but.

Jason Bateman and Rebecca Hall play Simon and Robin, a couple who move from Chicago to LA for reasons that become apparent as the movie progresses. Shortly after moving in, they bump into Gordon “Gordo” Mosley, played by Edgerton, who claims to have gone to high school with Simon decades ago. And so begins an awkward and tense relationship between the couple and the mysterious blast from the past, who as the title and trailer suggest, likes to deliver creepy gifts to their doorstep.

That’s all I can say about the plot without giving away spoilers, and on the face of that description, The Gift may dredge up memories of 90s surburban/family thrillers like Pacific Heights and The Hand That Rocks the Cradle. But even if that’s all it is — ie, a typical genre film — The Gift is a pretty good one. With well-developed characters, an uneasy atmosphere and genuine edge-of-your-seat suspense, it’s already a few steps ahead of more recent efforts such as 1999’s Arlington Road, 2001’s Domestic Disturbance and 2008’s Lakeview Terrace.

However, The Gift is much more than a typical genre film. It’s a subversive journey full of twists and turns, challenging audiences to put aside preconceived notions. Edgerton’s direction and script (yes, he wrote it too) plays with our knowledge and expectation of such thrillers, manipulating us into thinking one way and then shocking us with another. But it’s not all about tricking us either, as there are times when he chooses more conventional thriller paths and cliches — it’s just that we never know which approach he will take. It’s clear Edgerton, with his wealth of experience as an actor, knows how certain filmmaking techniques will make audiences think and feel, and he has taken full advantage of that.

I don’t want to overstate things here — we’re not talking about genius-level brilliance like The Usual Suspects or anything like that — though for a debut feature it’s hard to deny that Edgerton is impressive and has a wonderful future ahead of him if he decides to focus on more behind-the-camera work.

Full credit too to the cast. I love Jason Bateman, so don’t get me wrong, but he’s always more or less playing a variation of  Michael Bluth from Arrested Development (think about it — Horrible Bosses, The Switch, The Change-Up, Identity Thief, Couples Retreat, This is Where I Leave You, etc). The Gift is the first time I’ve seen him play a completely different character, and I’m frankly quite shocked by how great of a dramatic actor he is. It’s the best performance I’ve seen from him by far.

The lovely Rebecca Hall also gets to show off her acting chops more than I’ve seen from her in any film probably since Vicky Cristina Barcelona. In many ways, she’s actually the centre of the film, as audiences are closer to her point of view than anyone else’s. She’s vulnerable, she’s sympathetic and she’s tough when she needs to be. It’s a complex, multi-layered performance and Hall hits it out of the park.

By comparison, I was actually least wowed by Edgerton’s own performance, which is still a very good one but more difficult to gauge because Gordo is the “outsider” of the story. Edgerton undergoes a bit of a physical transformation to play this role, dying his hair red and dialling the creepiness meter to the max to make audiences as standoffish about Gordo as the protagonists are.

Also worthy of mention is Allison Tolman from TV’s Fargo. She only has a small role as the neighbour, but she manages to make her character more noticeable and memorable than it otherwise would have been.

As clever and crafty as The Gift is, the film does descend into more familiar thriller territory in its third act, veering towards improbable and preposterous plot developments that don’t always make sense. Some might think this “ruins” the film; for me, it’s just the consequence of trying too hard to come up with an explosive climax, a trap that — let’s face it — 99% of thrillers fall into. It’s not bad, it’s just a missed opportunity to take the film to the next level.

A less than optimal conclusion notwithstanding, The Gift is a superb thriller fuelled by skilfully moulded tension and conflicts, strong performances and a promising directorial debut from Joel Edgerton. I hope this film will open the door for us to see more efforts like this from him down the track.

4 stars out of 5