The vault has spent most of October’s buildup to Halloween showcasing movies featuring either ghosts or murder and today’s selection features both. I promise I’ll mix it up a bit with the next post, but I couldn’t pass up an opportunity to review a Sam Raimi film when today is his birthday.
Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett) is a widow with three young boys who makes a living foretelling people’s future; people like the abused housewife Valerie (Hilary Swank) or the kind but troubled mechanic Buddy (Giovanni Ribisi). The spirit of her Granny (Rosemary Harris) warns of an impending storm just as Annie is caught in the cross-hairs of Donnie Barksdale (Keanu Reeves). The hateful Donnie threatens Annie and her kids repeatedly after she tries to convince Valerie to leave him. Meanwhile, Sheriff Pearl (J. K. Simmons) searches for missing socialite Jessica King (Katie Holmes). Desperate, her fiancée Wayne (Greg Kinnear) and father (Chelcie Ross) beseech Annie to divine Jessica’s whereabouts. Annie’s gift reveals Jessica’s fate and places her in the path of an unsettled spirit, obstinate non-believers, and a murderer.
I recall watching The Gift in theaters back in 2000. It was memorable because there were maybe five of us in the theater, two of whom left early on and then a gentleman down front that, no lie, left with maybe fifteen minutes left. I couldn’t believe someone would sit for ninety minutes and then leave two minutes before a flashback reveals the killer and a topless Holmes. That nude scene, her first, is probably what The Gift is best known for, but if that’s all you’ve seen, you’re doing yourself a disservice.
Billy Bob Thornton, with fellow screenwriter Tom Epperson, based The Gift on the experiences of his psychic mother. It’s a haunting, intriguing murder mystery. At times, the story feels cramped with subplots and substantial details, but director Sam Raimi imbues The Gift with an ol’ fashioned creepiness befitting the swampy Georgia setting. Annie’s visions of Jessica’s ghastly apparition are the most disturbing, although Hilary Swank is straight-up, tore-up with her split lip, black eye, and horrifying mullet.
The Gift is a memorable film for those uniquely written, and dressed, characters. Swank’s Valerie is made even more unnerving by her complete lack of a backbone. Kinnear’s kind face and sad, puppy-dog eyes make him ideal for the mourning lover. Ribisi, who’s adept at playing weird and unbalanced, is frighteningly wacka-doo as Buddy! My favorite scene of his involves a confrontation with Donnie outside Annie’s home. While Keanu’s Southern accent wasn’t what you’d call spot on, Donnie is one of the few times he plays an antagonist and he revels in the role’s darkness. His hateful actions and bigotry (and scraggy beard) are what stick with you. Chelcie Ross, Michael Jeter, J. K. Simmons, and Gary Cole may have small roles, but they strut their stuff in true That Guy fashion only adding to story’s local color.
As Annie, Cate Blanchett is the linchpin of The Gift. As she always does, Blanchett gives a stellar performance. She carries the melancholy of a recent widow and the sternness and tenderness of a single mom while being haunted by ghosts and terrorized by a redneck. She’s got a lot going on and her excellent portrayal keeps viewers aware of everything. To be certain, there is fault to be found in The Gift, but I predict you’ll find far more bewitching qualities than confounding ones.