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GIFT, THE(director: Sam Raimi; screenwriters: Billy Bob Thornton/Tom Epperson; cinematographer: Jamie Anderson; editors: Bob Murawski/Arthur Coburn; cast: Cate Blanchett (Annie Wilson), Giovanni Ribisi (Buddy Cole), Keanu Reeves (Donnie Barksdale), Katie Holmes (Jessica King), Greg Kinnear (Wayne Collins), Hilary Swank (Valerie Barksdale),Chelchie Ross (Kenneth King), Kim Dickens (Linda), Gary Cole (David Duncan), Rosemary Harris (Annie’s Granny), J. K. Simmons (Sheriff Pearl Johnson), Michael Jeter (Defense Attorney); Runtime: 112; A Paramount Classics release; 2000)
“This whodunit had many contrivances and they all sapped strength from the film’s already rather weak mystery story.”

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

The Gift is a supernatural thriller whose motto is: ‘always follow your instincts.’ The psychic said that was how she was taught to believe by her kindly grandmother and by taking that advice I was able to instantly guess who the murderer was, while the film’s psychic had lapses of memory and forgot from time to time that handy motto. Unfortunately because of that gaffe and the film’s gaping holes in logic, I wasn’t absorbed by this moody and atmospheric thriller as much as I should have been. When you see how the film will be resolved before the main character does and that person is playing a psychic, then there is something amiss. The suspense always felt tacked on to all the psychic visions that dramatically kept the pot boiling.

The mystery takes place in a rundown Southern small-town (it was filmed in Savannah, Ga.); and, it involves a saintly widow who gets involved in a murder mystery, while supporting three small boys because her husband got killed in a factory explosion accident last year. Cate Blanchett gives a haunting performance as the psychic Annie Wilson, someone who is both vulnerable and strong in character.

The film opens as Annie is reading her special cards to her clients. Annie’s girlfriend Linda (Dickens) wants to know what kind of man is in her future; Valerie Barksdale (Swank) is an abused woman who is afraid to confront her redneck husband Donnie (Reeves) about the regular beatings he administers and is advised by Annie to leave him.

In town Annie runs into a mentally disturbed and violent young garage mechanic with a death wish, Buddy Cole (Ribisi), who is all bottled up about his relationship with his father and she tries to get him to face those bitter childhood memories. Ribisi’s portrayal was hammy and particularly uninteresting.

The first half of the film builds up a case against what a wretched monster this Donnie is, how he calls Annie a satanic witch and threatens her and the children if she meddles in his marriage; he even violates her household by sneaking in to use her cards to spell out Satan on her bed. The mystery event occurs when an attractive but promiscuous young woman from a prominent family, Jessica King (Holmes), who is engaged to the clean-cut school principal, Wayne Collins (Kinnear), turns up missing. Sheriff Johnson (Simmons) is not a believer in psychics, nevertheless is forced to call on Annie at Mr. King’s insistence. Annie dreams that Jessica is dead in a pond, and when the sheriff’s men dredge Donnie’s pond they find her body there and arrest him.

When the case goes to trial Annie is surprised at who the district attorney (Cole) is, because he was seen the night before the murder by her making love to Jessica in the ladies’ room of the rich social club she was visiting with her friend Linda. The trial was poorly filmed and made a mockery of how a trial should be run. Everything about it seemed unbelievable, as there was one scene where Annie is ridiculously attacked by the defense lawyer (Jeter) on a personal basis while the district attorney doesn’t even object.

This whodunit had many contrivances and they all sapped strength from the film’s already weak mystery story. The two things that kept this film watchable were the suspenseful visuals of Annie’s dark visions — eerily recalling things from the dead world, and Cate’s gifted performance that brought more to the story than the script by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson could provide. This is a return for Mr. Raimi (“The Evil Dead”) to his B-film origins, but this time with a Hollywood budget. As a Hollywood film it fails to deliver enough punch to be a box-office hit, but as a B-film it seems easier to overlook the film’s lack of punch and accept its ordinary Gothic story for all the possibilities it had.


Dennis Schwartz: “Ozus’ World Movie Reviews”