The Gift
review by Elias Savada, 19 January 2001

Horror maven Sam Raimi's directorial flair and Christopher Young's fiddle-flecked score aren't enough to prop up this supernatural Confederate corpse that comes up short in script and satisfaction. It's a stale Southern-fried Agatha Christie/Perry Mason-Dixon cross-breed -- the kind where just about everyone masquerades with a guilty face. In this case, it's the writers, Slingblade's Billy Bob Thornton and his erstwhile partner Tom Epperson, who paint their gothic mystery drama with broad stereotypes and a horrifyingly predictable ending. I see dead box office.

Raimi struck out with his last effort, the baseball-themed For the Love of the Game featuring Kevin Costner, although he won over non-traditional fans with 1998's A Simple Plan, a wintry mood piece with small town, slow-witted similarities to his current fare. I'm one of the small group that liked his western The Quick and the Dead (especially that one incredible shot when sunlight beams through a bullet hole in Gene Hackman's body), which broke him away from his Darkman/Army of Darkness/Evil Dead cult schlock genre works. The Gift is technically taut but thematically narrow-minded, its cast stuck in one-dimensional characters culled from a dime-novel.

At least the talented Ms. Cate Blanchett commands your attention as the clear-eyed, sweetly simple psychic in the bayou backwater town of Brixton (i.e., Savannah, Georgia). She's aglow with the same regal radiance that crowned Elizabeth. More recently you probably didn't recognize her as she dropped her native Australian accent for New York nasal in the guise of the Long Island wife of John Cusack in Pushing Tin. The subtleties of the South and three fatherless boys offer her this latest challenge, and even if the film fails to inspire, Blanchett provides suitable eye candy over its darkened landscape. As single mom Annie Wilson, she's not in the mood for trouble, but that's just what she's dealing, in the form of cards affixed with six-pointed stars, squares, circles, and three wavy lines. The young widow's innocent inability to present the proper poker face makes for a parade of nasty encounters among the local bottom-dwellers.

Such numb-skulled, paper-thin denizens include Donnie and Valerie Barksdale (Keanu Reeves and Hilary Swank). Reeves' wife-beating and wife-cheating redneck bully treads on the rotten ground he previously explored in The Watcher, while Swank, in the first appearance on the big screen since her Academy Award winning role in Boys Don't Cry, suffers his abuses as the white-trash spouse, a pseudo-deceitful bitch whose skin-tight pants and high heels beg for his misguided attention. Down the road apiece, on the other side of the tracks, is Dawson Creek's Katie Holmes as trampish socialite Jessica King. Daddy's a big wig at the country club, unaware that his sweet young daughter's busy screwing around with most of the town's menfolk, despite an impending marriage to school principal Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear), a mild-mannered heartthrob. As for the friendly neighborhood auto mechanic, Giovanni Ribisi is Hollywood's surefire answer to casting calls for the mentally disoriented and borderline psychotic. His sunken-eyed Buddy Cole fits the bill for did he or didn't he when one of the locals getting plucked and plundered. Then there is David Duncan (Gary Cole), the district attorney who charges into a media-grabbing murder case with his own secret. And Sheriff Pearl Johnson (J.K. Simmons) comes off as the local law authority more concerned with missing pastries than bodies.

But it's debilitating when the audience has to suffer through trite dialogue, enduring such satanic banter as "Messing with the devil's gonna get you burned" or the omniscient "Look's like there's a storm a'comin'." When the screenplay's too busy pointing fingers or guns -- the few spectators watching with me erupting in unintended laughter when Donnie and Buddy square off in a roadside tussle -- Raimi stirs up the cinematic gumbo with aural and visual effects, exhorting clouds to swirl by in darkened frenzy, lightning to pierce the damp night, and frogs and crickets to scream out in unified delirium.

As for the painful visions that haunt Annie as she tries to piece together this cryptic whodunit jigsaw puzzle, it seems that their selective nature enables the filmmakers to stretch out the story to two long hours. As the town's sounding board, she gets to play unlicensed psychiatrist to all who ask her otherworldly advice. And since you've read this far, I'll play counselor, too. The cheap thrills that wrap The Gift are best left unopened. There are no substantial presents under this post-holiday tree.

Directed by:
Sam Raimi

Cate Blanchett
Giovanni Ribisi
Keanu Reeves
Katie Holmes
Greg Kinnear
Hilary Swank
Michael Jeter
Kim Dickens
Gary Cole
Rosemary Harris
J. K. Simmons

Written By:
Billy Bob Thornton 
Tom Epperson

R - Restricted
Under 17 requires
parent or adult





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