The Gift (2000)

D: Sam Raimi
S: Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Rabisi

Well crafted supernatural yarn co-scripted by Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade) and directed by Sam Raimi (Darkman). This combination of talents resulted in some nice moments in A Simple Plan, and it pays off even better on this occasion. More in the line of a classic ghost story than a flat-out horror yarn, the film grips and chills despite periodic lapses in narrative momentum. With Raimi's ability to craft eerie supernatural scenes when needed and Thornton's grasp of the South, this is a tale of the fantastic which works on several levels: an authentic illustration of contact between worlds which raises questions about human faith in both of them.

Mild-mannered psychic Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth, Oscar and Lucinda) finds herself involved in a disappearance and murder case when she has flashes of foresight about local socialite Katie Holmes (Go). Holmes' fiancé is respected teacher Greg Kinnear (As Good As It Gets), and when Blanchett is called in to help find her by reluctant local law enforcement, an unlikely chemistry develops between them which complicates the search. The prime suspect appears to be uncouth, spouse abusing Keanu Reeves (The Matrix). His wife, Hilary Swank (Boys Don't Cry), has been coming to Blanchett for 'readings', and Reeves does not approve. His threats on Blanchett's life and penchant for extra martial dalliances make him less than sympathetic, but is he guilty? Meanwhile Giovanni Rabisi, another of Blanchett's clients, has been having increasingly violent emotional disturbances, and may well have some connection with events which can only be guessed at.

There is a nice, tangled plot here, but the film works primarily because of the believable, realistic characters and convincing dramatic interaction between them. Though many of the characters are familiar generic types (the rich, beautiful slut, the abusive redneck, the 'nice guy', the local looney), careful writing and good acting results in rounded characterisation which transcends the clichés.

Blanchett is the anchor of the film. Her delicate performance creates a sympathetic entry point to the world of psychic phenomena. Clever writing means that she not only makes the supernatural elements of the story believable, but that the sense of the prejudices stacked against her are equally rooted in everyday human causes. She manages to mix vulnerability and strength in her portrayal of how the character responds to the pressures upon her, worldly or no. Her low-key vocalisations, hesitant delivery and jittery movements suggest frailty, but she also evinces determination in her ability to make judgments about people (her advice during 'readings' seems as much about what she knows of their lives as anything she is receiving from esoteric sources).

There are also good turns from Rabisi and Reeves. The former also gets to veer between moods, albeit rather more dramatically than Blanchett. The latter makes a convincing surly redneck, marking yet another stint as a villain following The Watcher. Swank has little enough to do in her first role since her Oscar, but her character raises some interesting questions about abusive relationships which add to the nexus of psychological complication. Kinnear is not bad, though a level of underdevelopment fails to adequately explain why Holmes would even pretend to like him in the first place. Holmes herself makes a good femme fatale, but is not on screen for long.

The Gift is a rich supernatural yarn which should satisfy genre fans and perhaps win the favour of more uncertain casual viewers. It is beautifully photographed in atmospheric locations, nicely scored, and well paced. It allows time to become involved in the story and the characters and does not fail to deliver chills. It is a far cry from The Evil Dead, mind. Old school Raimi fans may miss the relentless shock and gore, but the director has returned to speculative fiction with a more restrained hand and a more considered script to produce a satisfying variant on a familiar formula. In essence, the project isn't really much different from that embarked upon in that low-budget exploitation film so long ago, but arguably the result is more worthwhile.

Review by Harvey O'Brien PhD. copyright 2001.