Revenge of the Nerd: The Gift on Netflix Instant

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It’s rare that a bleak film with a loud, direct and ominously bating title can deliver a satisfying reveal to its nominal mystery. The Box, for exampledespite an intriguing trailer featuring a sinister Frank Langellaended up just being an ultimately empty, scatterbrained mess that signaled the end of Donnie Darko director Richard Kelly’s career. For further examples of ticking-package duds, see It Comes at Night and the Season 1 finale of The Killing (a show I otherwise loved—#holderisms).

Collage courtesy of Dreg StudioOn the flip side, there are the other punchy, promising titles that deliver in spades. The Vanishing (AKA Spoorloosthe original Dutch version), The Guest, The Game and Sleep Tight come to mind. And then there’s Joel Edgerton’s crafty and warped 2015 directorial debut The Gifta complete package that unravels almost as loudly and chillingly as a young Brad Pitt staring into a cardboard box in a desolate field.

I’m not going to get too in-depth plot-wise, as this film relies on a maelstrom of twists and turns. But as to the bare bones, The Gift opens by introducing us to married couple Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall), as they relocate from Chicago to the California area where Simon grew up. While the upwardly mobile pair are out doing a little Bed, Bath & Beyond-ing for their new luxury abode, they run into an old classmate of Simon’sa socially awkward fella named Gordo (Edgerton), who dresses and does his hair like he can’t decide whether he’s George Michael or a used car salesman.

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“You gotta have… gifts, gifts, a-gifts!”

Needless to say, Gordo enters their life and starts bringing them… gifts. And herein lies the beginning of a very awkward and mysterious friendship.

One of the main things that makes this tension-riddled flick work is an unexpected turn from Jason Bateman. It’s not that he does anything mind-blowing here, but for once in his career, he doesn’t seem to be playing Jason Bateman. The familiarand, to be fair, reliably funnyMichael Bluth iteration that seemingly appears in every Bateman flick is cast aside for a guy who is less in Bateman’s go-to rational-smartass-good-guy mold. (I’d argue that he didn’t even veer far from this mold in the grimness of Ozark’s first season). Point being that in a film that depends on the unexpected, the casting of an actor we thought we knew playing a guy we clearly don’t is a strong touch.
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Then there’s Rebecca Hall, who, as a compassionate and conflicted recovering addict, reminds us that Rebecca Hall is just a classically good actress who will only enhance a tantalizingly bleak screenplay (see: The Town, The Awakening). And finally there’s Edgerton as Gordoa character I really want to talk about but really shouldn’t for the sake of your viewing experience. But hot shit does our man Gordo deliver one helluva sinister piece of dialogue in one of the film’s climactic scenes. Hell, it’s almost Cranston-esque!

There’s nothing special about Edgerton’s minimalist camerawork here, but there’s also nothing distracting about it. And sure, you can say you saw the ending coming five or ten minutes out. But the mystery certainly builds well leading up to that pointand the reveal is a gut punch you won’t soon forget.  While this is a mystery-suspense drama, it’s also one that should translate very well to fans of horror and dark thrillers. I’ll leave a large stamp of approval at that, and simply urge you to go in blind.

GRADE: B+ / A-
IMDB: 7.1

-Sam Adams

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True-ish detective: Unpacking “Manhunt: Unabomber” on Netflix streaming

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The eight-part Discovery Channel series Manhunt: Unabomber is one of the most thoroughly captivating, entertaining pieces of bullshit in the entire canon of true-crime TV.

Bullshit because Manhunt takes narrative liberties that are extreme even for Hollywood. The fabrication starts with a focus more on the FBI Unabomb investigation than on Ted Kacyznski. Nothing wrong with this approach, of course. But when a minor player in the real case (profiler Jim Fitzgerald, here Sam Worthington in the lead role) is turned into a modern-day Sherlock Holmesand his near-omniscience is only exaggerated by pitting him as a stereotypical underdog geniusthe formula might be hard to swallow for true-crime die-hards looking for the level of point-by-point attention to historical detail that, say, Zodiac obsessed over.

On the flip side, if you view this thing merely as an exercise in historical fiction (rather than the true-crime retelling it poses as), you’d be hard-pressed to find a more engrossing piece of detective TV over the past couple years.

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Not exactly selling itself…

While we’re on the subject of missteps by an otherwise-
phenomenal series, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the reason it took me a year to get around to watching this: piss-poor marketing. Take the reason half the world has seen
Mindhunter (a series incredibly similar, and no more compelling) and not this: With the dubious Discovery Channel stamp on a bland, gray canvas featuring an unrecognizable actor posing as the Unabomber, the cover art here suggests a hammy, low-budget direct-to-DVD thriller. This couldn’t be further from the truth.

Again, A-lister Sam Worthington stars (Netflix has increased his facial presence on its streaming page since they picked this up in late-2017). Manhunt also spares no expense on its strong cinematography, recreation of period and place, and reputable side cast (Jane Lynch as Janet Reno, Mark Duplass as Kaczynski’s brother). It actually feels a lot closer to the high-quality cinematographic and suspense work of Fincher in Mindhunter and Zodiac than it does, say, Lifetime’s Jodi Arias story.

UNABROTHER: Mark Duplass as David Kaczynski

UNABROTHER: Mark Duplass as David Kaczynski

And where Worthington does a fine job in a hyperbolized role, one of the greatest accomplishments of Manhunt is Paul Bettany’s dynamic portrayal of Kazcynski. Rarely do serial killer stories so impactfully display the humanity of their… serial killers.

And that’s probably a good segue to get into the narrative meat of the show.

The first episode opens with a calm-yet-sinister voiceover imploring: “I want you to think about the mail, for a minute. Stop taking it for granted like some complacent, sleepwalking sheep. And really think about it. I promise you, you will find the U.S. mail a worthy object of your contemplation.” This device (Bettany reading from the Unabomber letters and manifesto) is employed periodically throughout the series, both as a tool to get into Kaczynski’s mind and also as an empathic ploy that begins to explain why our protagonist (Worthington) becomes dangerously smitten with Kaczynski’s theories.

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“Mind. Blown.”

As Fitzgerald ascends from average-Joe Philly beat cop to he-man detective, he’s brought in by the FBI to build a profile on the elusive Unabomber. With the help of a faithful assistant (Keisha Castle-Hughes), Fitzgerald probes the case from new angles, identifying patterns in the Unabomber’s letters that lead to what he dubs “forensic linguistics.”

As bosses second-guess him at every turn, Fitzgerald continually saves face with last-moment revelations. This is not a spoiler, as Fitz and Ted face-off early onpart of Manhunt‘s effective nonlinear narrative. (They never met in real life, if you were wondering.)

While Worthington’s Fitzgerald is clearly a fabricated hero-character constructed for the sake of thrilling cinema, that construction is quite effective. Perhaps part of what makes Manhunt so intriguing is that as Fitz’s Kaczynski obsession begins to manifest in his personal behavior and ideologies (down to living in an isolated cabin in the woods and growing a laughably fake beard), we are confronted with a dark and ugly truth: Ted Kaczynski, the man responsible for the brutal murder and disfiguration of so many innocents, was in fact a sane, brilliant ideologist whose theories were, by and large, very relatable to good people. Like Fitz. Or you. Or me. “He just has the courage to live according to his ideals,” Fitz says at one point when refuting the popular notion that Kaczynski, was insane. “I respect that.”

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“Word.”

There’s no denying that Kaczynski is painted with a very sympathetic brush in this seriesone that might understably offend families of the innocent people who Kaczynski maimed and killed. But again, part of what makes the Unabomber case so interesting is that Ted Kaczynski wasn’t a psychopath or lunatic, but rather a passionate human who did some horribly misguided shit to get his desperate plea about the state of humanity across to the rest of humanity.

One particularly poignant and haunting scene shows Bettany frolicking in the woods to a classical symphony played on an old gramophone. Here, he looks like some ethereal pan creaturea hybrid of Thoreau and Baryshnikovenchanted by the sublime beauty of nature, and an inextricable part of it. It’s this side of Kaczynski that’s relatable.

Bettany brings a disturbing level of gravity to his portrayal of Kaczynski, showing his many sides: the idealistic naturalist who cares for and is enchanted by the world; the creepy, angsty social outcast; the egomaniacal tortured genius who decided to play god.

In all, this is an expertly crafted detective series with an incredible turn by its antagonist. I’d be playing spoiler if I were to get into my views about why this series is both Grade-A cinema and Grade-A bullshit. Suffice it to say that you’ll probably see what I’m talking about as it unfolds.

IMDb: 8.2
GRADE: A-

-Sam Adams