***/**** Image A Sound A Extras C
starring Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, Keanu Reeves, Katie Holmes
screenplay by Billy Bob Thornton & Tom Epperson
directed by Sam Raimi
by Bill Chambers The Golden Razzies are the worst: Earlier this year, they (dis)honoured Keanu Reeves for one of the only decent performances he's ever given, in Sam Raimi's The Gift. With his horrendous turns in The Replacements and The Watcher also up for grabs, I can only say that these anti-Oscars would be more clever and thought-provoking if they quit aiming their guns at sitting hams (witness George C. Scott's Raspberry for his outstanding work in The Exorcist III); they long ago became the spoof-awards equivalent of a male comedian cracking wise about his mother-in-law. But then, The Gift hasn't garnered much respect at all, except from those who watched for the specific purpose of glimpsing "Dawson's Creek"'s Katie Holmes in the buff. She plays a society slut in this southern gothic, which failed to exceed genre expectations during its curiously staggered theatrical release last winter. Yet there are times when a film should be lauded for fulfilling a set of obligations, and this is one of them.
Cate Blanchett stars as Annie Wilson, a bona fide psychic (her powers of E.S.P. the titular "gift") with a hazardous clientele. There is battered wife Valerie Barksdale (Hilary Swank), whose philandering, white-trash husband Donnie (Reeves) believes that the womanly concern Annie shows for Valerie is the start of an occultist brainwash; the bipolar Buddy Cole (Giovanni Ribisi), whose death wish ping-pongs between himself and acquaintances; and, eventually, the loved ones of the missing and presumed-dead Jessica King (Holmes). They each lash out at Annie and her Zener cards (the ones popularized by Ghost Busters) for providing the exact objectivity they sought. Fortune-telling is like any other profession that involves consultation: If comfort and the truth are mutually exclusive, people generally prefer the former, and will not hesitate to shoot the messenger.
The setting is a patch of swampland, natch, full of pious hypocrites like Donnie. A criminal attorney (Michael Jeter at his wormiest)--Donnie's lawyer--gets a courtroom on his side by demonstrating her inability to guess how many fingers he's holding up, driving her alleged fraudulence home by asking why she didn't or couldn't predict the accident that killed her own husband. The film treats Annie's "gift" as real and innate, which deepens the skepticism that surrounds it. Archetypally, she's less horror heroine than monster: misunderstood, resented, and feared for her uniqueness despite predominantly innocent qualities.
Raimi dabbles in old-fashioned mise-en-scène to match. The Gift revels in blunted weapons jutting into frame and women creeping cautiously down dark, narrow hallways, armed with a baseball bat that might just as well be a candelabra. The most revisited location is a consuming pond populated with eerily-lit cypress trees--it looks as though beasts far scarier than alligators reside among them in these waters. (One of Raimi's own 'gifts' is knowing how to shoot a wooded area for maximum oppressive effect; see also: A Simple Plan and the first two Evil Dead movies.) There's an ode to scenes such as the one from Scorsese's Cape Fear remake, with a violent encounter climaxing in a character's slipping and falling on a pool of blood (here red paint). And there are (too) many jump-scares or soundtrack "stingers," most of which derive from vivid dream sequences, the kind destined to end with the sleeper springing awake, out of breath and sweating coldly.
The Gift was co-written by Billy Bob Thornton, and it probably would've been a more resonant, elegiac piece with him at the helm. By the same token, the cast speaks in his stylized yet authentically provincial patois ("I like the way you talk," the two heroes of his Sling Blade confided in each other, echoing our sentiments exactly), and in a movie with a less laconic pace than Thornton the director seems willing to accept. (Not that Raimi is the dolly-crazy auteur he used to be.) The Gift is a thrill machine as efficient as it is atmospheric, and if I was finally let down by the resolution of the central mystery, I felt lucky to have had Blanchett, Reeves, and, especially, Ribisi, as escorts. Buddy's suicidal plea to a stunned Donnie is one for the ages.
Paramount's DVD presentation of The Gift is just that to the film's fans. I never found the 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer anything less than gratifying; occasional fluctuations in grain or contrast are both intended and motivated. The Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is rife with aggressive bass and split-surround cues. One of my favourite moments wasn't thunderous, but unsettling: Donnie comes a-calling on Annie late at night (chapter 11), and his voice and actions are isolated in the rear speakers. It really does seem like he's looming behind us. Extras on this generously-indexed (46 chapters!) disc include the studio's now-standard interview compilation, the 10-minute "The Gift: A Look Inside" (wherein Raimi reveals he was initially turned off by the script's dark qualities!); the theatrical trailer; and the music video for Neko Case & Her Boyfriends' gorgeous "Furnace Room Lullaby," the best minor-key ballad this side of Angelo Badalamenti's collaborations with David Lynch. Originally published: July 20, 2001.