The Gift (2000)

20 Mar


Smith’s Verdict: ***

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

Artistry can redeem any subject matter. In many cases, the material itself doesn’t necessarily matter for a film—it’s what the artist does with the material and how they handle it that really matters. In the case of “The Gift,” top-notch director Sam Raimi and his stellar ensemble cast make the best out of a standard screenplay from Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson (who also wrote the terrific “One False Move”) that is not necessarily bad or even mediocre, but could have been executed like a disposable, run-of-the-mill supernatural thriller if put in the wrong hands. Thankfully, Raimi and his cast make it anything but. It’s intriguing, chilling, skillfully-made, and very well-acted.

Cate Blanchett stars as Annie Wilson, a psychic living in a backwater Southern town in Georgia. She has three young sons, has lost her husband to an accident, and makes a living by telling fortunes to local people. She genuinely has the gift of second sight (her grandmother had it as well) and has sporadic visions in her dreams and by looking at certain places or objects. She doesn’t fool with people—she listens to her clients and reasons with them in good manner. She doesn’t even ask for money, though her clients are generous enough to give donations. It’s the least they could do for having someone listen to them and give them advice.

Among her clients is a victim of spousal abuse, Valerie Barksdale (Hilary Swank). Her husband, Donnie (Keanu Reeves), is an abusive S.O.B. who beats his wife (giving her “welts the size of footballs on my back,” according to Valerie), and doesn’t approve of Annie giving Valerie advice. He threatens her and her children, even uses a voodoo doll to try and intimidate her, and says he doesn’t want her using her “devil tricks” on his wife anymore.

Also among Annie’s few defenders is Buddy Cole (Giovanni Ribisi), an emotionally troubled mechanic who is afraid he might do something bad to his father. And there’s also a possible romance between Annie and the school principal Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear), although he’s set to marry Jessica King (Katie Holmes) whose father is highly respected in the town. Everyone else in this town either doesn’t believe in Annie’s gift or believes that she’s in touch with the devil.

Annie starts to see visions of impending doom for Jessica. Soon enough before Annie can even comprehend these visions, Jessica is missing. A few days later, the police go visit Annie to see if there’s anything she can see to give them some sort of lead to her whereabouts, even though they are reluctant to believe that she’s genuinely psychic. Annie is convinced by further visions that Jessica is dead and that Donnie may have killed her. And surely enough, the police find her body in Donnie’s backyard.

But it doesn’t stop there—Annie has to testify while trying to convince the skeptical D.A. of her gift, while also believing that there’s more to this incident than meets the eye. This leads to further plot developments that sort of run “The Gift” off of steam, but are still acceptable mainly because despite everything, we are curious to see where all of this is heading.

Admittedly, the first half of “The Gift” is even better than the second half. The setup is competently handled, and Raimi really knows how to grab our attention with his filmmaking. Notice little details in the Southern town that make it seem like a “Southern gothic” tale—it’s the kind of atmospheric detail that caught attention in Raimi’s “A Simple Plan” (minus the snow). And the story sets itself gradually with a consistently gradual pace, and the characters, for the most part, are well-developed. (For those who aren’t, they still fit their eccentric types, which is suitable enough.) The tension is present, with threats of physical violence and also those upsetting visions that would disturb any nervous viewer.

So, even if the second half of “The Gift” isn’t as intriguing as the first, as it does wind up in the traditional supernatural-thriller fashion with one or two unexpected twists, it’s still admittedly interesting to see where “The Gift” goes with this. As a result, thanks to Raimi’s filmmaking, we’re still not quite sure of what to think of everything being thrown at us, but we’re also still on edge.

The acting is phenomenal—each of the actors give a solid performance in “The Gift.” British actress Cate Blanchett as Annie Wilson, the woman who starts to see this gift as a curse (and she even admits to having a premonition to her husband’s death, thus making her feel guilt), is excellent in this movie. It’s a courageous, understated role that she’s up to (and she nails the Southern accent as well). Keanu Reeves is surprisingly great and manages to radiate pure evil in the performance of Donnie—he’s genuinely menacing. (Keanu Reeves seems to be everyone’s go-to “bad actor,” but watch his performance here and you won’t even see Keanu Reeves.) Hilary Swank makes the best of her small role. The jury’s still out on whether Katie Holmes can act, but she’s suitably cheeky here as Jessica. Greg Kinnear does what he’s required to do (which is to say he’s mild, but supposed to be “too nice”). Giovanni Ribisi is terrific as Buddy—he doesn’t play it over-the-top with the loud fear; he’s genuinely disturbed and even kind of sympathetic.

Thanks to top-notch direction from Sam Raimi and of course solid acting by the ensemble cast, “The Gift” is a good example of artistry overtaking all. This easily could have been a bad movie, given most of its supernatural elements. It’s done very well as it is.

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