The Gift

          Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson have been friends since the
  early 1960s and they've been collaborating as a screenwriting team since
  the late 70s, but it took almost fifteen years before a script was produced.
  1992's crime thriller
ONE FALSE MOVE put them on the map and the duo
  further collaborated on
A FAMILY THING and DON'T LOOK BACK (both 1996),
  although the latter was sold directly to HBO. Each went on to forge a solo
  career as well, Thornton as an actor-director-writer and Epperson as a
  producer and writer. One of their earlier screenplays, based in part on the
  experiences of Thornton's mother, forms the basis for the new Southern
  Gothic thriller
THE GIFT.

          While originally set in the writers' native Arkansas, the final version
  of
THE GIFT has shifted the locale to a small Georgia town, but the main
  character -- a loving portrait of Thornton's mother Virginia -- remains. In
  the film, she is called Annie Wilson (played by Cate Blanchett), and is a
  widow raising three sons who has psychic capabilities. In order to make
  ends meet, Annie provides card readings for the locals (who in turn donate
  money for her services). She is part adviser, part therapist, privy to all
  sorts of personal information. Among her clientele are abused wife Valerie
  Barksdale (Hilary Swank), who refuses to leave her husband Donnie (Keanu
  Reeves), and troubled auto mechanic Buddy Cole (Giovanni Ribisi). When
  one of her sons acts up, Annie is called to the school for a conference
  with the principal Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear) and meets the man's
  fiancée Jessica King (Katie Holmes), a wealthy local girl who asks Annie
  if she can predict how their marriage will turn out. Annie "sees" something
  -- the young woman surrounded by water -- but, like many in her profession,
  doesn't reveal bad news. Instead, she lies and tells the girl she sees
  nothing.

          Annie has her own set of problems: Donnie Barksdale has been
  threatening her and her kids, even to the point of breaking into her home
  and Buddy is constantly asking her for help with regard to a "blue diamond."
  When Jessica disappears, the sheriff (J K Simmons) reluctantly agrees
  to consult Annie. Because of the skepticism of the lawman, she is unable
  to concentrate, but later has flashes of the young woman floating in a
  lake. Her visions lead her to property owned by Barksdale and he is then
  accused of the woman's disappearance. At the trial, Annie is skewered by
  the defense attorney (Michael Jeter) and denounced by many in the town
  as a witch. As if the pressures of testifying weren't enough, Buddy snaps
  one night and threatens to set his father on fire because of childhood
  transgressions. Feeling guilty she was unable to assist her friend and
  having difficulty coping with the trial Annie continues to "see" strange
  things related to Jessica's mysterious disappearance, spurring her
  to solve the mystery on her own.

          As directed by Sam Raimi,
THE GIFT is appropriately atmospheric,
  providing the occasional shock-you-in-your-seat moments. Thankfully,
  he doesn't condescend to Annie or her talents, nor does he overdo the
  spooky visions she has. His restraint goes a long way in making the film
  as engrossing as it is. Certainly, the script isn't as strong as it might
  have been. If one pays close attention, the guilty party is revealed fairly
  early on which negates the mystery, despite the presence of many red
  herrings.

          What also makes
THE GIFT noteworthy are the mostly excellent
  performances from the cast. The one exception is Ribisi whose patented
  slow-witted, angry young man shtick is becoming boring. Raimi fails
  to rein him in and his overacting mars what could have been a truly
  tragic figure. On the other hand, Oscar-winner Hilary Swank proves her
  award was no fluke as she essays an insecure woman who not only
  is terrified of her brutish husband but also clearly loves him. Keanu Reeves
  is a revelation as that spouse. Gone is the laconic persona he has
  fashioned in so many other films replaced by a chilling portrait of a
  hair-triggered redneck. Also of note are Gary Cole as the prosecutor
  and Katie Holmes as the spoiled rich girl with a secret life (although I
  could have done without the gratuitous nudity). Kinnear is fine as her
  cuckolded fiancé while Michael Jeter nearly purloins the proceedings
  with his turn as a snaky lawyer.

          The center of the film, though, is Cate Blanchett, who turns in
  a brilliantly nuanced, fully felt performance as Annie. This extraordinary
  actress has already demonstrated her remarkable range by portraying
  everything from an Australian heiress (in
OSCAR AND LUCINDA) to a
  British monarch (
ELIZABETH) to a Long Island housewife (PUSHING TIN,
  which co-starred screenwriter Billy Bob Thornton) to an upper crust
  American heiress (
THE TALENTED MR. RIPLEY). As a Southern woman
  coping with guilt over not being able to save her husband from his death
  (she intuited that he shouldn't go to work on the day he was killed) and
  its impact on her kids, she navigates wide ranges of emotions. Her
  malleable features -- one minute plain, the next luminous -- make
  her perfect for the role and she not only carries the film but is a perfect
  "reactor" to those in scenes with her. (Chief example, she almost
  grounds Ribisi's over-the-top portrayal in reality.) Her Annie is a woman
  for whom her abilities are both a gift and a curse and that is never made
  more clear than in her heartbreaking testimony under the rigid grilling
  of Jeter's defense attorney.

          Unfortunately,
THE GIFT isn't a better film, but as setting for
  the gemlike performances of its cast, particularly its leading lady, it
  more than serves its purpose.


                                  
Rating:                C
© 2006 by C. E. Murphy. All Rights Reserved.