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The Gift

  the gift
Cate Blanchett quietly curses the screenwriting team.

2001, Paramount Classics
All Rights Reserved

Cate Blanchett keeps "The Gift" (IMDb listing) from experiencing a full-blown meltdown. With a collection of simple glances and measured movements, she holds the shreds of this ragged story together. It's a tremendous effort. It's an award-worthy effort. It's also a futile effort. Blanchett's legacy as "The Gift's" savior is usurped the moment Katie Holmes exposes her breasts.

"The Gift" has the predictability of a five-day desert forecast. Blanchett ("Elizabeth") plays Annie Wilson, a widow who provides for her three young sons by offering psychic readings to her small-town neighbors. Annie isn't a fraud; she's a legitimate clairvoyant whose gifts are grudgingly employed by investigators when a beautiful local woman (Holmes) disappears. Annie uses her supernatural feelers to lead police to the backyard pond of the town's resident wife beater, Donnie Barksdale (Keanu Reeves). A trial sends Barksdale to prison, but days later Annie's psychic claxon horn blows and she realizes Barksdale isn't the killer. With the wrong man in jail, the story becomes a sputtering whodunit that wheezes to a deus ex machina conclusion.

Someone should have told screenwriters Billy Bob Thorton and Tom Epperson that deus ex machina is a flowery synonym for "cop out." Their screenplay wants to be a supernatural thriller that moves with clever strides, coaxing the audience along its murky path and culminating in an unexpected finale. Aiming for the upper echelon of suspense is noble, but this script doesn't have a chance in hell of hitting its lofty mark. Thorton and Epperson burden the cliched characters with heavy doses of country ignorance. They spew pop-psychology advice — "You can't keep running" — and laughable warnings — "You mess with the Devil and you'll get burned!" The setting is equally lame: A rural southern town full of backwoods psychosis and moist ponds perfect for body dumping. With this script, "The Gift" is closer to John Grisham than Alfred Hitchcock.

Inexplicably, the screenplay attracted Cate Blanchett. Armed with her remarkable blue eyes and a finely-tuned southern accent (she's Australian), Blanchett takes the script's flimsy character and molds Annie into an engaging protagonist. The other players — Greg Kinnear, Giovanni Ribisi, Hillary Swank — are decent, but the only notable supporting turn comes from Keanu Reeves. He's menacing and forceful, which is an odd thing to say about a guy who routinely "whoas" his way through his movies.

Bringing depth to a Keanu Reeves performance is an accomplishment, but further accolades for "Gift" director Sam Raimi can't be delivered. The filmmaking cliches that made Raimi's "Army of Darkness" so campy and fun are annoying when removed from a comedic realm. The sound of a beating heart, or blood dripping from a leaky faucet, can be forgiven when the main character has a chainsaw in lieu of a hand, but here Raimi's use of tired devices sucks the tension out of "The Gift." His reliance on cockeyed camera angles is also troublesome. It provides creative juxtaposition, but often feels forced.

Raimi's filmmaking is better suited for lighter fare, but his direction of "The Gift" isn't the epicenter of the film's failure. The script is the pitfall. With Blanchett as the star, Thorton and Epperson should have bestowed her with fertile material worthy of her talent. Instead, they produced the first draft of a flawed thriller.

Filmfodder Grade: C

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