The Gift

Bowl (Large)

Khokhloma painting on wood is a traditional type

of Russian decorative work.

Several arcs cross in The Gift. Cate Blanchett is in ascendance, as the film adds another great performance to her relatively short but already impressive career. Meanwhile, director Sam Raimi drops a notch. Known for his quirky and imaginative early works like The Evil Dead and Darkman, Raimi has migrated to the mainstream with his last few efforts, films that may earn more at the box office but have yielded little new in the way of technique or style. His by-the-numbers direction of The Gift reduces a potentially involving story of the paranormal to utter predictability. Blanchett’s seamless and soulful performance deserves better.

Annie Wilson has a gift. Like young Cole Sear in The Sixth Sense, she sees dead people. She also can sense approaching danger and peer vaguely into the future. But Annie is fully aware of her clairvoyant talents, as is everyone else in bucolic Brixton Georgia, where she’s the resident psychic, fortune teller, confidant and de facto shrink. Annie is a widowed mother of three young boys who manages to scrape by on the infrequent "donations" from her varied clientele, people who come to her as much for solace and a few moments of quiet contemplation of their pasts as for a covert peek into their future. There’s Buddy (Giovanni Ribisi), emotionally stunted from a traumatic childhood of repressed memories. Valerie (Hilary Swank) is married to Donnie, a violent and abusive backwoods Cro-Magnon (Keanu Reeves). Like any good therapist, Annie helps her clients solve their own problems, find their own answers. It’s a sleepy existence until Donnie takes exception to his wife talking to Annie and threatens both of them, he’s angry because Valerie is starting to make up her own mind about a few things. And when local socialite/bad girl Jessica King (Katie Holmes) disappears under suspicious circumstances involving Donnie, her yuppie fiance (Greg Kinnear) convinces police to enlist Annie to help find her.

The Gift begins promisingly. Raimi does a good job of showing Brixton’s sleepy pace and the quiet but foreboding beauty of the surrounding swamps. There are many small satisfying touches – Annie using ESP cards instead of a tarot deck to conduct her readings, being able to talk to everyone in town about their problems except her own children. But as the missing persons case progresses, Annie’s visions become more troubling, the film’s action turns more violent, and the story swerves off into fairly standard shocker territory. The film’s pacing starts to go awry as an atmosphere of tension and foreboding is repeatedly built, then squandered as Raimi and writers Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson employ just about every shock film cliche. The narrative becomes more disjointed as the mystery continues, with several courtroom scenes serving as visual speed bumps that slow the pace to almost a halt. In his previous film A Simple Plan, Raimi captured small town Minnesota with near-reverence, depicting decent moral people at odds with a moral maelstrom that was engulfing them. Here Raimi shows Brixton as a shallow place, populating it with a stock collection of southern rubes who often provoke laughter in scenes where none would seem to be intended.

The best part of the film by far is Blanchett, who follows her strong work in Elizabeth, Pushing Tin, and The Talented Mr. Ripley with another impressive job of self-immersion. Annie is a tired woman, weary from expending so much of her energy helping others find peace that she has little for herself, and Blanchett captures her carriage, conviction, and dialect with an accomplished and economical performance. The rest of the cast produces mixed results. Keanu Reaves is a good fit as the IQ-impaired Donnie and Katie Holmes makes a convincing ingenue rebellious and tired of the small-town Brixtron pace. But Giovanni Ribisi’s Buddy is a study in decibels over content, way over the top. He’s always had a harrowed look, but here his eyes are so sunken he resembles a raccoon on chemotherapy. Greg Kinnear plays Jessica’s fiance mostly as a clothes rack for oxford button-down shirts.

The Gift is a film suffering from multiple-personality disorder, over the course of its story mutating from spare psychological thriller to violent shockfest. It travels a path of least resistance that squanders a great Cate Blanchett performance and makes one wish that director Sam Raimi had followed the Standard Guide To Scary Movies a bit less slavishly.

– Bob Aulert