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THE GIFT

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Review by Michael Jacobson

 

Stars:  Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, Keanu Reeves, Katie Holmes, Greg Kinnear, Hilary Swank
Director:  Sam Raimi
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Surround
Video:  Anamorphic Widescreen 1.85:1
Studio:  Paramount
Features:  Theatrical Trailer, Music Video, Featurette
Length:  111 Minutes
Release Date:  July 17, 2001

“Are you the fortune teller?   I’d love to have my fortune told.   Will we live happily ever after?…

…What’s the matter?  You see something bad?”

Film ***1/2

Billy Bob Thornton, as a writer, has to be the best thing to happen to the southern gothic movie since Deliverance.  Like Woody Allen knows and loves his New York, so does Thornton love his deep south, even relishing in stripping it of it’s “y’all come back now” hospitality and exposing its dark underbelly of prejudice, violence and male-hormone rattled mentality.

In co-writing The Gift with Tom Epperson, all of this material and more is brought in, helping to elevate the story into something more sinister and more involving than a standard by-the-numbers mystery.  Director Sam Raimi, whom I’ve been a huge fan of for many years, is the right choice for this material.  His courage in harnessing the supernatural for thrills and chills in imaginative ways has been forever documented in his Evil Dead movies, but his intelligent, character-driven approach to more mainstream movies was also proven in another venture with Thornton, A Simple Plan.  The Gift seems a perfect blend of both sides of his talent, as his camerawork, startling imagery and knack for creating suspense with a few broad strokes plays against a tapestry of richly drawn characters, some of whom win our sympathy, and some of whom inspire our immediate hatred.

This may be the skimpiest plot line I’ve ever constructed for a review, but the storyline demands it…and if anyone tries to describe the film to you before you’ve seen it, walk away!

Cate Blanchett, in a remarkable performance, plays Annie Wilson, a widowed mother with the gift of the title.  She has psychic abilities (and isn’t it wonderful how in the movies, psychics are always depicted as modest and helpful with their gifts, rather than sitting back and collecting five bucks a minute from some phone line?), and performs readings in the comfort of her own home for a variety of clientele, including the mentally unstable Buddy (Ribisi) and a domestic abuse victim, Valerie (Swank).  As it turns out, Annie’s consistent advice for Valerie to leave her ogre husband Donnie (Reeves) doesn’t set well with him, leading to a couple of ugly confrontations.

There is also the school principal Wayne (Kinnear) and his fiancée Jessica (Holmes).  When the latter goes missing and the local police can turn up no clues, they reluctantly go to Annie for any kind of extra help in solving the case.  Annie has a haunting vision that leads to the explanation…or does it?  In films like these, the real answers are never the most obvious.

That’s as far as I want to say on the story…I’d rather instead concentrate on the brilliant structure the screenplay and the direction bring to what might ordinarily be considered standard fare.  Annie’s gift is used as a device for us, the audience, from time to time.  Because of it, a spoken word here, a look there, has more meaning to those of us watching the film than those who are taking part in it. 

And the film doesn’t sacrifice everything for the sake of its mystery…far from it.  Part of what makes The Gift so satisfying is its attention to character detail.  The characters inspire our emotions, but they also are allowed to let us question those feelings from time to time.  Only our emotional involvement makes a mystery satisfying.  If we don’t care about the people on screen, there can be no ultimate payoff.

But the payoff is, unfortunately, where the film falters.  I won’t give anything away, but I have to label it what it is…a major league deus ex machina.   To make matters worse, it seemed as though the writers knew that’s what they had on their hands, and quickly threw a patch over it before it let all the air out of the story.  What they chose to walk away with was a significant piece of the conclusion left unexplained…probably the lesser of two evils.  This picture deserved far better.

The cast is amazing across the board, from Ms. Blanchett’s fully realized performance as Annie to the vulnerable Hilary Swank, fresh off her Oscar win for Boys Don’t Cry.  But two actors deserve special note:  Keanu Reeves, who for once, really strips himself of all charm and likeability to play a thoroughly dark and repulsive character.  There is no trace of his pizza delivery boy personality in his portrayal here.  The second is Giovanni Ribisi, whom I’m convinced more and more is our generation’s Marlon Brando.  His uncanny ability to disappear into a character until almost unrecognizable has never been as potent as it is here…watching his work alone is worth seeing the movie for.

Ultimately, though, The Gift satisfies with its strong performances, tightly constructed story, suspense, chills and visual style for a good 100 minutes, even if it falters at the final 10.  There is enough value here to make it more than worthwhile…if I express disappointment, it’s only because the movie had the potential for true greatness, but settled for a little bit less.

Video ***1/2

Paramount delivers another quality anamorphic transfer with The Gift.  The coloring is good throughout, though the picture reflects Raimi’s roots in a more stripped down style of filmmaking in terms of its art design and decoration.  Images are clear and well-rendered throughout, murky in detail only when the scenario calls for it to be.  Both lighter and darker scenes come across well, suffering no grain or other artifacts of compression.  The print itself is also in good shape.  Overall, a terrific job.

Audio ****

Get ready for a surprise…didn’t think The Gift would make demands on your audio system?  Think again.  There are near heart-attack inducing moments where the dynamic range is utilized fully for maximum effect, and there are plenty of audio cues throughout (especially during depictions of psychic phenomenon) that will have you unnerved.  A particular piece of violin music radiates madly out of all channels at one point, each one slightly different.  There are also plenty of ambient uses of surrounds, including running water, whistling wind, thunder claps, and so on.  This is a well rendered track, and one that definitely enhances the movie watching experience!

Features *1/2

Nothing much exciting in the extras department…a trailer, a music video by Neko Case and Her Boyfriends, and a ten minute production featurette with cast and director interviews.

Summary:

Sam Raimi’s The Gift is a supernatural mystery thriller that satisfies much more than it frustrates.  It boasts a good script, a superb cast, and excellent sense of style from a master director that all work together to keep its audience involved almost to the end.