"The Gift" (IMDb listing) would make a perfect book. It's one of those kinds of stories that you pick up in a drug store on a whim and take it home to read under the covers during a thunderstorm. It's southern gothic with the proper twists and turns to rival any whodunit in years. Directed by renowned horror/comedy helmer Sam Raimi, "The Gift" is eerily similar to his 1998 masterpiece "A Simple Plan." Take a remote location, insert a murder, unleash a troupe of actors all itching to break out of their stereotypical roles, and take the time needed to slow-roast the plot developments. Voila! You have another immaculate tale of betrayal, death, and deep-seeded fears of the unknown.
Cate Blanchett stars as Annie Wilson, a small-town psychic who earns money by reading tarot cards for the local townsfolk. When a prominent rich girl (Katie Holmes) is murdered by an unknown assailant, the police and her fiance (Greg Kinnear) turn to Annie to help find her. Fearing for her life from the abusive husband (Keanu Reeves) of one of her clients (Hilary Swank), Annie finds herself and her gifts tested when she begins to have nightmarish visions of the dead girl and is unable to prove herself a reliable witness.
Written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, "The Gift" is an excellent example of doing great things with minimal resources. Shot for very little money, "The Gift" is far more ambitious than the budget reveals. The screenplay doesn't cover all the bases normally associated with this type of thriller, but it does take the time with each of its characters. It is in that time that we are allowed to see the world that Annie lives in. Its ugliness and its beauty. While "The Gift" isn't a rousing thriller with all the trappings, the relative smallness of the production and its meager agenda work in its favor. Its loose, slow, and builds instead of shooting its proverbial wad right away. Like "A Simple Plan," "The Gift" takes the action of a small-town murder and makes it feel lived in. Watching "The Gift," I felt part of the community, as if I was Annie's neighbor. Many films go out of their way to push the audience aside. "The Gift" invites you in on all the lurid fun right from the start.
And you can trust me because I'm horrifically biased. Being a fan of Raimi's since I laid my eyes on the you-absolutely-gotta-see-it "Evil Dead 2," it's been one gigantic pleasure to see the director grow so much in recent years. Yes, even the Kevin Costner-tainted "For Love of the Game" is worth accolades. Long-gone are the slapstick tendencies Raimi once favored replaced with a serious, adult spin on mature film themes. The change suits him.
"The Gift" can easily be compared to "A Simple Plan" in so many ways, but this is a good thing. Raimi's gift for mood and composition are rampant throughout "The Gift." Gone are the snowbound flatlands of central Minnesota, now replaced by the dingy, murky bayous of Georgia. The moon hangs low in the sky as if its got a million secrets to bear, and the crickets chirp endlessly. You can almost feel the humidity in the theater. Raimi's camera takes us right in the heart of a southern town where lies are believed and abuse is tolerated, but doesn't give us an all-encompassing canvas of southern life like Clint Eastwood tried to do in "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil." Raimi instead stages the bayou action like a smutty pulp novel, complete with a hick wife-beater and some sexual abuse thrown in for good measure. "The Gift" is not Earth-shatteringly original stuff. What it happens to be is an exceptionally executed murder mystery with just enough lewd details to keep the plot lubricated, and just the right talent to pull it off.
By hiring Cate Blanchett, Raimi has half of his work finished. A marvelous actress who has already climbed to the top of the heap in such a short time, Blanchett is the ace in "The Gift." As the tormented psychic Annie, Blanchett is given the right inspiration from the script to not play her as just another misunderstood clairvoyant. Annie is lonely and still hurting from the sudden loss of her husband, who died in an accident she could not predict. Blanchett gives her character the right mix of dread and anxiety when Annie's gifts begin to manifest in the form of the dead girl. She's phenomenal for the entire run of the movie, with Raimi right behind her making sure Annie is never out of the swamp completely.
Filling out the supporting cast is a list of heavyweights that would make any film easy to swallow. Greg Kinnear is effective as the cuckold fiance, quickly erasing any ill will from last summer's "Loser." Hilary Swank and Kim Dickens deliver small thrills as two disregarded southern gals. Gary Cole is appropriately creepy and sinister as a lawyer who defends Annie. Giovanni Ribisi (providing some of "The Gift's" best scenes) gives it all he's got in the role of Annie's only friend, a mentally unstable mechanic with a nagging mental picture of a blue diamond haunting his every thought. Katie Holmes has too small a part to register, yet she retains some points by taking a chance her "Dawson's Creek" co-stars wouldn't dare do: playing an adult. And now we come to Keanu Reeves, an actor so misunderstood and underappreciated that I hope audiences won't overlook his powerful performance as the hillbilly psychopath Donnie Barksdale. I've defended Reeves before in other reviews and I will go to my grave quietly repeating my mantra that there are far worse actors in the world than Keanu Reeves. He's excellent here and deserves much more credit than people will part with.
And that's the simple key to "The Gift." It's all these little parts that form a wonderful whole. It won't cure cancer, but as a small-time Hollywood thriller, it's got all the goods needed to bring you to the finish line with a smile on your face and all your fingernails chewed off.
Filmfodder Grade: A