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Dustin Putman

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The Gift (2000)
3 Stars

Directed by Sam Raimi
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, Keanu Reeves, Katie Holmes, Greg Kinnear, Hilary Swank, Michael Jeter, Kim Dickens, Gary Cole, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons.
2000 – 111 minutes
Rated: Rated R (for violence, language, and sexuality/nudity).
Reviewed by Dustin Putman, January 19, 2001.

Gothic murder-mystery yarns are not a new conceit. In fact, they've been around in books and on film for many, many years. Without the proper handling, they come off as old-fashioned, bland, and outdated. "The Gift," directed by Sam Raimi, is a tried-and-true effort that surprises very little, and includes everything from a wide array of suspects and red herrings, to mansions in the deep south with moss trees out front, to the eventual discovery of a waterlogged corpse found in a nearby pond. It's fairly obvious who the killer is; in fact, I predicted who it would be before the movie began and was correct in my preliminary suspicions. The film ultimately shouldn't work, but it does, thanks to a sparkling cast that fills each character with so many memorable nuances, the most fun to be had is in simply watching the people interact with each other.

Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett) is a recently widowed mother of three sons who makes her living giving psychic readings to the residents of her backwater southern hometown. Some of her mainstay clients include Valerie Barksdale (Hilary Swank), who is severely abused by her husband Donnie (Keanu Reeves), and Buddy Cole (Giovanni Ribisi), an unstable mechanic who is confused by the nightmares he's been having about a mysterious blue diamond that is somehow linked to his father. For Annie, she does not give the readings merely for money, but uses it as a way of seeking solace in finding the good in everyone's future. Her late grandmother (Rosemary Harris) told her as a child that it was a gift she was given, and she should always remember that.

When Annie's eldest son is involved in a fight at school, she meets the nice-guy school principal, Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear), whom she finds herself attracted to. But Wayne is engaged to the wealthy Jessica King (Katie Holmes), whom Annie immediately gets a negative vibe about. At a party with her best friend Linda (Kim Dickens), Annie stumbles upon Jessica in a compromising position with lawyer David Duncan (Gary Cole). Soon after, Jessica has disappeared, leaving everyone in a frenzy over what could have possibly happened to her, and Annie starts to have nightmares and apparitions linking Jessica with the vicious redneck Donnie Barksdale, and the pond behind his home.

"The Gift" may be cliched on a sheer storytelling level, but the performances and tight direction from Raimi (who has redeemed himself for his embarrassing last film, 1999's "For Love of the Game") lift the picture up several notches. Slowly enveloping the viewer into the many intriguing characters and their individual plights, the disappearance of Jessica at the 30-minute mark divulges the movie's true intentions and transforms the proceedings into a taut, at times frightening, horror-mystery.

At the center of the film is the exceptional Cate Blanchett (1999's "The Talented Mr. Ripley"), who turns Annie Wilson from what could have been little more than a run-of-the-mill protagonist into a very exact, down-to-earth, realistic person with valid troubles and a caring attitude towards those around her. Blanchett takes the unextraordinary material and runs with it, giving the entire film a truly classy aura that it otherwise might not have had. We follow her at every turn because she is so mesmerizing, both as a character and an actress.

Blanchett isn't the only bright performer, as she is ably supported by one of the best casts of the year. In her first role following her Oscar win for 1999's "Boys Don't Cry," Hilary Swank is excellent as the confused Valerie, who seeks guidance from Annie, but is too scared to take her biggest advice of all: to leave the grossly abusive Donnie. As Donnie, Keanu Reeves (2000's "The Watcher") makes an utterly convincing backwoods meanie, so much so that it is difficult to believe he is an actor at all. For the often-criticized Reeves, whose acting abilities have never been the best, this is the biggest compliment he could possibly get, and it is also one of the better performances he has given. Giovanni Ribisi (2000's "The Boiler Room") is heartbreaking as a mentally slow young man who sees Annie as his only friend, and wants her to do nothing but help him understand why he is being plagued by bad dreams about his dad. In the small, but pivotal role of the sleazy Jessica King, Katie Holmes (2000's "Wonder Boys") has turned in yet another stunning supporting turn. Her promiscuous role of Jessica is one she has never played before, and she is radiant in her few scenes. Finally, Kim Dickens (2000's "Hollow Man") makes her usual strong impression as Annie's spicy best friend, Linda.

The other notable aspect of "The Gift" is its moody atmosphere that lays such a thickly foreboding air over every scene it's almost suffocating. Thanks to cleverly construed editing by Arthur Coburn and Bob Murawski, and the successful use of different eerie sounds effects and a very good music score by Christopher Young, the movie not only achieves a scary undercurrent, but one that is filled with dread. Helped along by a strong screenplay by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, which makes the most of its setting and delightful cast, "The Gift" is that rarest of thrillers that actually thrills, and offers up a fair share of chills, too. It may not be groundbreakingly original, but it sure is an entertaining ride for the duration of its running time.

©2001 by Dustin Putman

Dustin Putman