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The Gift   B+

Paramount Classics

Year Released: 2000
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Sam Raimi
Writers: Billy Bob Thornton, Tom Epperson
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Keanu Reeves, Giovanni Ribisi, Greg Kinnear, Hilary Swank, Katie Holmes, Michael Jeter, J.K. Simmons.

Review by Rob Vaux

I'm sure there's Hollywood bigwigs out there who like to talk about "taming" Sam Raimi. The former B-movie director has developed his innate talents from the wonderfully warped Evil Dead trilogy into some very disciplined and effective studio movies. From the Hitchcockian tension of A Simple Plan to the terrific baseball of For Love of the Game, and now The Gift, a Gothic thriller that's equal parts William Faulkner and Stephen King, Raimi has "matured" into a first-rate Hollywood director. Still, there are those of us who quietly pine for the old Sam Raimi, the merry prankster who saw filmmaking as some kind of demented pinball machine. One of the true joys of his recent movies -- especially The Gift -- is seeing flashes of his glee beneath the straight-laced veneer.

In fact, The Gift is almost the ideal material for that particular pleasure, weaving a typical Hollywood murder mystery with ghosts, psychic powers, and evils both petty and monstrous. Written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson (with more than a passing nod to Thornton's Sling Blade) it dances right up to the edge of turgid melodrama, but has enough self control to rein itself in at just the right moments. The title refers to the precognitive talents of Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett), a rural Georgian widow who has the power to see the future. Like many movie psychics, Annie's gift can be annoyingly vague sometimes, and she considers it as much a burden as a blessing. She doesn't go out of her way to advertise (this town isn't exactly open-minded), but still manages to eke out a living giving card readings to the troubled souls who visit her.

Then the roof caves in. After advising battered wife Valerie Barksdale (Hilary Swank) to leave her brute of a husband Donnie (Keanu Reeves), Annie finds herself the target of Donnie's redneck wrath. Then the town's luscious debutante (Katie Holmes) disappears, and her psychic flashes show fuzzy details of a grisly murder. All the signs point to Donnie as the killer (he has a habit of philandering as well as wife-beating), but how can Annie be sure that her troubles with Donnie aren't influencing her "visions"? Moreover, how can she get anyone to believe the truth when she has no evidence and everyone in town knows about their feud?

The Gift boasts an impressive cast, containing no less than three Oscar nominees who are all in peak form. When coupled with the writing, the performances lend a three-dimensional feeling to every character, no matter how minor. Blanchett's yeoman work and a slew of supporting turns from the likes of Michael Jeter and Giovanni Ribisi turn the film's small town into a real place full of real people, not some studio version of the "inbred South." Reeves, in particular, makes a surprisingly believable bad guy, and Donnie's palpable rage is shocking coming from The Artist Formerly Known As Ted.

Raimi's direction overlays these carefully constructed figures with a dark atmosphere of impending dread. Annie's flashes terrify her as much as anyone else, giving glimpses of sinister secrets lurking beneath the town's calm facade. With a murderer on the loose and unquiet spirits invading her thoughts, she has to find the truth beneath multiple layers of instinct and supposition. Raimi plays these elements perfectly, conjuring the proper spookiness without sacrificing believability. At times, the material becomes a little too routine, but he keeps the pacing tight enough to comfortably gloss over the more contrived plot elements.

Indeed, these moments are sometimes the most enjoyable of the film, for they afford the old Sam Raimi a chance to peek through the curtain. Elements such as a dripping sink with seeming intelligence, or a perky fiancé dissolving into a drowned corpse remind us of the director who once chased Bruce Campbell through the woods with a steadicam. We see just enough of Raimi's prankster side to let us appreciate his overall discipline, and his efforts neatly cover up some of the film's weaker bits with a nod and a sly wink.

Though The Gift made a qualifying Oscar run in New York and L.A., it doesn't seem likely to earn many nominations at this point. Nevertheless, it remains an accomplished piece of craftsmanship, and more of an achievement than some of the favorites being bandied about. Thoughtful and gripping without wallowing in dramatics, it marks another high point on Sam Raimi's strange, but increasingly accomplished film career. The Evil Dead days may be gone, but movies like The Gift keep that spirit intact...hidden beneath first-rate Hollywood entertainment.

Review published 01.16.2001.

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