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With: Cate Blanchett, Katie Holmes, Keanu Reeves, Giovanni Ribisi, Greg Kinnear, Hilary Swank, Michael Jeter, Kim Dickens, Gary Cole, Rosemary Harris, J.K. Simmons, Chelcie Ross
Written by: Billy Bob Thornton, Tom Epperson
Directed by: Sam Raimi
MPAA Rating: R for violence, language, and sexuality/nudity
Running Time: 111
Date: 12/22/2000

The Gift (2000)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

A 'Gift' With No Surprises

by Jeffrey M. Anderson

Director Sam Raimi knows scary movies; he crafted two of the best of the 1980's, The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II. Likewise, he's adept at all kinds of genre movies, from generating comical suspense in Darkman (1990) to real suspense in A Simple Plan, one of 1998's best movies. So the new supernatural thriller The Gift should have been a walk in the park for him. And maybe that was just the trouble. The film suffers from extreme ordinariness.

Based on a screenplay by Billy Bob Thornton (who delivered such a great performance in A Simple Plan) and his partner Tom Epperson, The Gift describes what Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett) does for a living. She's a psychic (she doesn't like to be called a "fortune teller") who reads cards for her neighbors in a small Southern town. Valerie Barksdale (Oscar-winner Hilary Swank) suffers horrible beatings from her evil redneck husband Donnie (a frightening Keanu Reeves) and Annie tells her to leave him. Donnie shows up at Annie's house vowing revenge. In the meantime, local beauty Jessica King (Kate Holmes), who is about to marry established schoolteacher Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear), turns up missing. And Annie's other steady client, Buddy Cole (Giovanni Ribisi) has problems of his own.

All of this turns into a murder mystery. The character with the most evidence pointing to him gets tossed in jail while the real killer goes free. Even with four possible suspects, including a sleazy lawyer (Gary Cole), it's not hard to figure out who the killer is. And even considering her gift, Annie doesn't seem to be able to keep from doing stupid things, like visiting all four of the suspects in turn and telling them that she thinks the real killer is still loose, inviting certain carnage upon herself.

But the problem with The Gift is not the logic loops. It just feels like no one really even tried on this one. When we consider the pedigree behind this movie--Thornton and Epperson's screenplay for the great One False Move (1992) and Raimi's A Simple Plan--The Gift just seems pedestrian and rather phoned-in. Raimi manages a few decent scares, using Annie's cosmic premonitions as clever cinematic "boos," but even then they remind us of The Sixth Sense, which, also, was a superior thriller.

The excellent cast otherwise certainly helps this movie along. Reeves stands out with his sinister and unpredictable bullying. When Annie first lets him in her house, under the impression that he has come to deliver bad news about Valerie, he saunters in, steps on Annie's son's drawing on the floor, and begins poking at a fish on a hanging mobile, before turning to look at her with his dead eyes. Ribisi also displays some wonderful out-of-control moments, fighting with his massive inner demons. Swank, stuck with the put-upon redneck girlfriend role, reads great humanity into it. And Blanchett shines, appearing in nearly every scene in the movie. She must withstand horrible physical abuse in more than one scene, but her gravity and style win out.

I suspect that The Gift will find its widest audience on cable. It's a good movie to curl up with on the couch with a glass bowl of microwave popcorn. There's nothing wrong with that, but Raimi's name on the film makes us think that it should have been more. A lot more.

This article also appeared in the The San Francisco Examiner.

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