2000, R, 112 min. Directed by Sam Raimi. Starring Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, Keanu Reeves, Greg Kinnear, Hilary Swank, Katie Holmes, Michael Jeter, Kim Dickens, Gary Cole, J.K. Simmons, Chelcie Ross.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., Jan. 19, 2001
The cabin that serves as one of the central locations in The Gift looks as though director Sam Raimi has copped the appearance of the structure straight from his early cult sensation Evil Dead II (itself a conscious remake, but with a budget, of his earlier horror mind-blower Evil Dead). Unfortunately, that's about all he's cribbed from his stylistically groundbreaking early efforts. As surprise packages go, The Gift is a dud. This rural Georgia suspense tale has some nice things going for it, although mystery is not really one of them. Most viewers will be able to figure out the story's twists and culprits in advance of the characters' discoveries, making the plot an occasional hindrance to the advancement of the story. The script by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson (who also collaborated on A Family Thing and One False Move) maintains the duo's interest in small-town Southern deviants, and there's also more than a passing resemblance to the psychological issues raised by the character dynamics of Thornton's Sling Blade. Raimi, for his part, has experienced uneven results in recent years as he's taken to directing studio features: For every Darkman and A Simple Plan, there's also been a For Love of the Game and The Quick and the Dead. Now, with the perfect opportunity to exercise some of his signature camera gimmickry and tension-building technique in The Gift, Raimi seems to have forgotten how to scare the living daylights out of cabin-bound characters. His technique is not entirely absent, but too often it relies on tried-and-true clichés involving rainstorms, thunder claps, and creepy foreshadowing. The gift referred to in the title has to do with powers of the supernatural kind. Annie (Blanchett) has a gift for seeing the future and earns a modest livelihood from conducting card readings for the locals. A widow with three young children, Annie, by the nature of her work, functions as the town's lay therapist, confessor, and advisor. After the unsolved disappearance of the fiancée (Holmes) of the school principal (Kinnear), Annie is called in reluctantly by the girl's distraught father and stymied law officers to offer any insight she might have. It doesn't really take a deck of cards to discern a few likely candidates who might be involved in foul play: primarily, the sweet but extremely troubled auto mechanic played by Ribisi (who has essayed a few too many troubled-youth types in recent films and is in danger of permanent typecasting) and the wife-beating husband (Reeves) of Annie's best client, Valerie (Swank -- wearing terrible hair extensions). A few other squirrely characters are littered about as well, but often you get the feeling that if Annie would just open her eyes and trust what she sees with them she would be much better off than she is by putting her faith in her cards and her psychic abilities. Blanchett is a pleasure to watch, however, and Reeves is stupendously fearsome as the backwoods lout (unlike his other recent turn as a bad guy in The Watcher). Kinnear, unfortunately, is miscast here as his entire elitist demeanor makes him an unlikely candidate for habitation in this community. So many logical questions go unasked in The Gift, which, ultimately, is the movie's downfall. Mark this package as “Return to Sender.”