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The Gift (2000)
Having Sam Raimi at the helm of a film is a strong enough reason for most horror fans to watch. After the understated brilliance of A Simple Plan, it's a strong enough reason for anybody to go. However, in The Gift, Raimi is given an amazingly talented cast that threatens to overshadow his brand of cinematic exuberance. Most exciting is the presence of the beautiful and, heh, gifted Cate Blanchett.
First, let me tell you that neither Blanchett or Raimi disappoint in their mastery of their respective trades. The former is a subtle actress, able to draw your attention without ripping at the scenery to do it. The latter knows, as usual, how to use the camera effectively, this time to bring about quiet terrors and effective shocks. His methods are much different from those used in making The Evil Dead and Evil Dead II. I'll play on that in a moment.
Annie Wilson (Blanchett) is the resident psychic in a small Georgia town. She reads cards and has psychic visions which assist in her attempts to play psychologist for her clients. Among those who seek her help are Valerie Barksdale (Oscar-winner Hillary Swank), whose husband Donnie (Keanu Reeves) beats her, and tormented Buddy Cole (Giovanni Ribisi), a mechanic with a troubled family history. Annie's powers put her at the center of a kidnapping that she may or may not have the solution to. However, several powerful and frightening images begin to overwhelm her, and she fears that the perpetrator may threaten the lives of her and her children.
Every actor in this film is doing excellent work, even WB icon Katie Holmes and Reeves (who drops his surfer dude to play a believably menacing redneck). The Southern accents range from excellent (Blanchett) to passable (Greg Kinnear's slips in and out). Also, look for Michael Jeter (The Fisher King) and Gary Cole (who Raimi fans will remember from the TV series "American Gothic" and A Simple Plan).
Raimi's direction is much less outrageous than in his Evil Dead movies - there is, of course, a reason for this. With his wild trilogy, Raimi was trying to build the blood and guts to the point where it was funny, and the audience was desensitized. Here he takes a more realistic approach, more careful and methodical, so that every drop of blood or bizarre image is a shock. This works, of course, because Raimi is very good at what he does; his work here is tip-top.
Something has to be said about the beautiful Savannah scenery of this movie, however, it's best if somebody who experienced it first-hand does the gushing. In the Spring 2001 issue of "Wicked," Raimi said that "we felt this was a great town to shoot in because in every frame it had these fantastic things which are obviously not of this earth [but] we accept as normal." It's true. There are these weird, gnarled trees in the background, and the most beautiful flora and fauna; it's simply an amazing locale.
Unfortunately, the weakest portion of the movie is the script (by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson). I'm not saying that it's a bad script, not at all. It's just a bit better than mediocre. It goes from point A to B to the obvious twist C. In fact, a lot of the film seems to be playing toward a surprising reversal of some sort. It's something of a distraction - the film doesn't play like a whodunit and it obviously would like to keep its cards close to the ribcage. It's not hard to guess what's going on, and if one does, it hardly ruins the film. A good script wouldn't have the audience playing those mind games, though. Even if it did, it shouldn't be so easy to win.
Raimi continues a project started in A Simple Plan - using the tropes of suspense films to explore characters within a small community. Suddenly, the viewer is not only involved in reacting to thrills and shock, but they're being imperceptibly swept into a greater human drama.
The Gift is a powerful mixture of realistic human drama and the supernatural dread of a power that is as much a curse as it is a gift. There's something for everyone in this film; it's one of the rare horror movies of recent years with truly universal appeal.