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"THE GIFT"
(2001) (Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Suspense/Thriller: A small town psychic finds herself thrust into the middle of a harrowing experience when she's asked to help find a missing and presumably dead woman.
PLOT:
In the backwoods town of Brixton, Georgia, Annie Wilson (CATE BLANCHETT) is known for her psychic visions. Recently widowed and trying to support her three young sons, Mike (LYNNSEE PROVENCE), Miller (HUNTER MCGILVRAY) and Ben (DAVID BRANNEN), Annie has taken to card readings for the locals.

Among them is Buddy Cole (GIOVANNI RIBISI), a disturbed and seemingly suicidal mechanic who's troubled by thoughts of looking into a mysterious diamond. Then there's Valerie Barksdale (HILARY SWANK), a battered woman who can't find it in herself to leave her abusive husband, Donnie (KEANU REEVES), who isn't particularly pleased to hear that Annie's told Valerie to leave him.

Annie is sweet on high school principal Wayne Collins (GREG KINNEAR), but he's engaged to the wealthy, but promiscuous Jessica King (KATIE HOLMES), who's seeing various men in town including lawyer David Duncan (GARY COLE). When she turns up missing and her well-to-do father, Kenneth King (CHELCIE ROSS), and Sheriff Johnson (J.K. SIMMONS) have run out of ideas, they reluctantly turn to Annie hoping that she can "see" what happened, although the sheriff remains skeptical about that possibility.

Soon, however, Annie begins having various mysterious and disturbing visions, all of which lead her to believe that foul play was involved. Searching for the missing woman, Annie and other locals soon dredge up a discovery that sets into motion a series of supernatural occurrences where any number of people may be the prime suspect.

OUR TAKE: 7 out of 10
When it comes to gifts, there are the types that are given during the holidays and for birthdays and other special occasions, and then those that involve what seem to be innate skills and abilities that a lucky few possess. Some people are known as having the gift of gab, while others are born with the ability to play piano concertos, speak many languages or do complex mathematical equations, even at a young age.

Others have innate abilities, however, that turn out to be more of a curse than a gift, at least when appearing in supernatural-based films. For instance, Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken) could see the future through a touch or handshake in "The Dead Zone," while Laura Mars (Faye Dunaway) had premonitions of murders in "The Eyes of Laura Mars." Oda Mae Brown (Whoopi Goldberg) realized she really was in touch with the dead in "Ghost," while Cole Sear (Haley Joel Osment), of course, saw nothing but dead people all of the time in "The Sixth Sense."

Now, Annie Wilson joins that illustrious group in "The Gift." A telepathic card reader, Annie is one of those well-meaning psychics who finds her "gift" turning into a curse when she's asked to help find a missing and presumably dead woman.

Speaking of gifts, director Sam Raimi seems to have one for filmmaking in general and for taking a relatively well-worn tale here and making it seem fresh, invigorating and exciting in particular. That's because if there's one, somewhat negative thing about the film, it's that the basic, underlying story isn't particularly novel.

Beyond the aforementioned psychic-based films and others with their similar characteristics and supernatural visions of pivotal events, there have been plenty of made for TV movies and shows dealing with the psychic as the unofficial police detective of sorts. As such, it isn't particularly difficult to see where things will head - at least in a general sense - in this film.

That said, it's the way in which Raimi ("A Simple Plan," "Darkman") and screenwriters Billy Bob Thornton ("Sling Blade" "One False Move") and Tom Epperson ("One False Move," "A Family Thing") arrange and then steer the proceedings that makes the film work and be worth seeing. Yes, there may be the standard lineup of potential suspects who may or may not have committed the deed and have various reasons to do so if they did. Then there are the usual creepy moments, spooky visions and red herring-laced jump scenes that are all designed to keep the tension and suspense ratcheted up on both an individual and collective level.

Yet, Raimi and company manage to keep things interesting throughout by infusing the film with something of a Southern gothic horror aura. Despite the familiarity, we're never quite sure what's going to happen, and there are plenty of creepy and potentially scary moments to keep viewers on their toes and near the edge of their seats. It certainly doesn't hurt that Raimi's assembled a great cast, a bevy of interesting characters they inhabit, and their interesting connections to the protagonist.

The heart and soul of the story, that character is played by the talented Cate Blanchett ("The Talented Mr. Ripley," "Elizabeth"). Giving the protagonist - who's reportedly loosely based on Thornton's real life mother -- far more depth and compassion than one would normally associate with or imagine for such a character in a film like this, Blanchett is not only impressive in the role - she's also quite believable - and her performance clearly drives the film.

Like any good whodunit type story, the plot introduces a number of interesting characters and related revelations that the viewer must watch for clues while trying to figure out and then finger the guilty party. As earlier stated, that's clearly not the first time - nor the last - that such tactics will be deployed in a film along these lines, but the performances from those involved are good enough to keep the viewer transfixed throughout.

Following his turn of playing the villain in "The Watcher," Keanu Reeves ("The Replacements," "The Matrix") convincingly plays a wife beater here and delivers a chilling performance while doing so. Giovanni Ribisi ("Boiler Room," "The Other Sister") is also quite good as an emotionally troubled local who could be the culprit due to his mentally unbalanced state.

One can only hope that Oscar winning actress Hilary Swank ("Boys Don't Cry," "The Next Karate Kid") will soon appear in a happy film, but in the meantime she's completely convincing as an abused, white trash wife. Greg Kinnear ("Nurse Betty," "As Good As It Gets") does his subdued preppy bit again as the victim's fiancÚ, while Gary Cole ("A Simple Plan," "Office Space") briefly appears as another potential suspect. Meanwhile, Katie Holmes ("Wonder Boys," "The Ice Storm") is convincing as the promiscuous young woman whose actions serve as the catalyst for the story.

Although with this and his latest efforts, Raimi seems to be downplaying the previous and impressive visual theatrics he formerly employed in his films, the filmmaker certainly knows how to stage his shots in ways that grab and completely engage the viewer, and that's certainly the case here.

Featuring an appropriately haunting score by Christopher Young ("The Hurricane," "Species"), solid performances all around from the cast and just the right directorial touch and writing to overcome the fact that it doesn't really offer anything particularly new to the "psychic sees murder" sub-genre, "The Gift" is like one of those old-fashioned, well made suspense thrillers that simply works because of those combined efforts from the cast and crew. The film rates as a 7 out of 10.




Reviewed January 9, 2001 / Posted January 19, 2001


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