Gift, The (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

The Gift is an example of how superior craftsmanship can transform a ho-hum genre entry into a sporadically gripping thriller. On the surface, there's nothing special about this movie - it's a run-of-the-mill supernatural murder mystery with all of the elements one expects from this sort of a motion picture: ghostly apparitions, courtroom drama, red herrings, and an "unexpected" twist at the end. Yet, while the script, credited to Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, is strictly generic, the direction by Sam Raimi and the performances of a stellar cast are anything but that. As a result of their contributions, a film that might originally have been strictly palatable for late-night cable viewing has turned into something worthy of theatrical consumption.

The Gift tells the story of Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett), a widowed psychic scraping out a meager living by telling fortunes. Having lost her husband a year ago, she must provide for herself and her three young boys. There are plenty of people in the backwater Southern town who don't approve of what Annie does - they think she's a fraud or in league with the devil. Chief among them is Donnie Barksdale (Keanu Reeves), the abusive husband of one of Annie's clients, Valerie (Hilary Swank). One of Annie's few defenders is Buddy Cole (Giovanni Ribisi), the emotionally disturbed owner of a local garage. And, although Annie isn't looking for romance, there's clearly a connection between her and clean-cut Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear), the principal at her sons' school. But a relationship doesn't look likely - Wayne is set to marry Jessica King (Katie Holmes), whose father is one of the most respected men in town. Then, one night, Jessica turns up missing and Annie experiences visions that implicate Donnie in her murder. Unwilling to credit the genuine nature of Annie's talent, the police are reluctant to believe her, but when the investigation uncovers a body, Annie becomes a star witness in a sensational trial.

The first half of The Gift is better than the second. Raimi does not rush the setup. He allows it to unfold gradually, with moody shots of bayous occasionally interrupted by flashes of lightning and claps of thunder so sudden that only the dead won't jump in their seats. The characters are introduced with an equally unhurried precision. They are not presented as types; after only a few scenes, Annie has become a living, breathing individual. The other men and women populating this film, while not as well developed, seem more like real (albeit eccentric) people rather than raw constructs lifted off some screenwriter's shelf. Suspense is built slowly but inexorably, with the threat of physical violence (in the person of Donnie) being presented in concert with the increasingly disturbing psychic episodes Annie experiences.

There is a point, however, shortly after The Gift's midpoint, when things go on autopilot. The movie begins to bow to the cliches of the genre, and there are scenes in which the established intelligence of the main character is undermined (such as when she fails to lock the door behind her even when she knows someone may be lurking outside). There are two twists at the end, but neither is especially surprising. Nevertheless, by employing some interesting editing choices (especially during the climax), Raimi manages to keep things a little edgy while never allowing the viewer to be completely sure of himself or herself.

Cate Blanchett, who can play any part from the Queen of England to a denizen of J.R.R. Tolkien's Middle Earth, proves that a gritty, unglamorous role like that of Annie does not challenge her range. Blanchett is wonderful as the uncertain, tortured psychic, and her performance brings Annie's humanity to the surface in a manner that a less gifted actress might not be able to manage. Giovanni Ribisi gives a nice turn as a character who could easily have been overplayed. He's not exactly subtle, but he avoids the frothing at the mouth that would have transformed Buddy into a grotesque caricature. Katie Holmes is suitably saucy and sassy (and exhibits in graphic terms that she is willing to take roles that require nudity), and Greg Kinnear is intentionally bland. Hilary Swank, coming off her Oscar-winning work in Boys Don't Cry, has a small but critical part. Finally, there's Keanu Reeves, who surprises with the pure evil he radiates. He was bad to the bone in The Watcher, where he toyed with James Spader, but here, perhaps because he's so believable, he's genuinely frightening. Maybe it takes a tough role like this to bring out the actor in Hollywood's original bogus adventurer.

In an odd way, the moody atmosphere of The Gift reminded me of Clint Eastwood's Midnight In the Garden of Good and Evil. The two movies don't have a lot in common, but there's a similarity in the way they feel - both directors steep their characters and situations in the setting so that the place becomes as forceful a presence as any human being. There's also more than a hint of The Sixth Sense in The Gift. The way the movie toys with ghosts and the supernatural guarantees that even if the filmmakers didn't see M. Night Shyamalan's breakthrough effort, the suits who greenlighted this project did.

I could easily make a case for several acting Oscar nominations in The Gift, but it's a long shot that the movie will be given any kind of official recognition. Despite being released for a week last year in Los Angeles to meet eligibility requirements, The Gift is unlikely to receive much notice. For Sam Raimi, it's another step into the mainstream (a path the Evil Dead director began with the tense A Simple Plan, continued with For Love of the Game, and will conclude with next year's Spiderman). For audiences, it's an example of how something worthwhile can occasionally be found floating around in the sewage that Hollywood dumps during the month of January.

Gift, The (United States, 2000)

Director: Sam Raimi
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Katie Holmes, Keanu Reeves, Giovanni Ribisi, Greg Kinnear, Hilary Swank
Screenplay: Billy Bob Thornton & Tom Epperson
Cinematography: Jamie Anderson
Music: Christopher Young
U.S. Distributor: Paramount Classics
Run Time: 1:51
U.S. Release Date: 2001-01-19
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity, Nudity, Sexual Situations)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1