‘The Gift’ review

ndsu spectrum: Movie Review

‘The Gift’ blends soothing and horrific imagery

By JOHN HANSEN
Jan. 26, 2001

 

Director Sam Raimi may be famous for his camp classics like the “Evil Dead” trilogy, but thanks to two flawless films in the last couple years, his image might be changing.

His latest masterpiece, “The Gift,” was co-written by Billy Bob Thornton, who possibly drew from on his own moving performance as a dimwitted man who accidentally commits murder in Raimi’s “A Simple Plan.” Like that film, “The Gift” is an emotionally riveting thriller with a masterful performance at its heart.

Cate Blanchett stars as Annie, a woman with extrasensory perception who is the key to solving a murder case in a small Southern town. The film is a soothing and sometimes heart-wrenching portrayal of deeply messed-up folks in a modern backwood. Jamie Anderson deserves an award for his lush cinematography — southern swamplands never looked so hauntingly beautiful.

A few cues, such as Annie telling her son to let the answering machine get the phone, remind us that this is a contemporary setting. Still, the story unfolds in a simple time and place; the female characters wear light clothing that wave in the breeze and the cops’ approach law enforcement is basically limited to “Oh, I’ve know that guy for years, he’s no murderer. Now let me get back to my doughnuts.”

Thanks to great editing, “The Gift’s” horror elements constantly sneak up on the viewer. The first example comes in the opening segment: the camera pans over dark marshes as soothing music plays and then — BAM! — we see a flash of a decomposing corpse before the relaxing tone takes over again. I must’ve flinched about ten times over the course of the film.

Blanchett gives such a natural performance in the lead role that it didn’t strike me how great she was until the film was over. Other performances are more obviously brilliant — Giovanni Ribisi is simultaneously sympathetic and creepy as a suicidal, maladjusted man who is one of the many clients of Annie’s tarot card-reading practice.

Keanu Reeves gives a chilling turn as a brutal wife-beater. Hilary Swank, consistently looking like hell thanks to the makeup and hair departments, plays the wife. Greg Kinnear goes against type as the good-hearted fiancé of the murder victim.

But the film’s most shocking performance comes from Katie Holmes as murder victim Jessica (most of her scenes are in flashbacks). Jessica wears clothes that seem ready to fall off her at any moment, and she has seemingly had sex with every man in town — this character is the exact opposite of what you’d expect Holmes to play.

Sure, “The Gift” is a traditional mystery-thriller, but it also taps into something new. Like most horror movies, it has a false ending, but this one comes in the middle rather than the end. So after Annie’s testimony puts the wrong man in jail, all bets are off in the film’s second half.

Because the main character is a psychic, there are plenty of shocking dream images in “The Gift” — Jessica’s half-naked corpse floating in a tree springs to mind. So many films have used false realities as a plot device in recent years you’d think it would be old by now. But it’s not — thanks to Raimi’s expert touch, the question of what’s real and what isn’t never seemed creepier.

Title: “The Gift”

Starring: Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes, Keanu Reeves, Hilary Swank, Gary Cole, Michael Jeter, J.K. Simmons

Written by: Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson

Director: Sam Raimi

Grade: A