A little background on my viewing of The Gift. First of all, I regret not bringing anyone along to share in the movie experience, but unfortunately, I'm only 17...old enough to get in myself, but I can't get anybody else in. How I hate the MPAA. Second, this is the first time since I saw Evil Dead that I went into a Sam Raimi film not anticipating Raimi's work. It's nothing against Raimi, it's just that I had an even stronger reason to go in the beautiful and talented Cate Blanchett.
First, let me tell you that neither Blanchett or Raimi disappoint in their mastery of their respective trades. Cate is subtle actress, able to draw your attention without ripping at the scenery to do it. Sam, as usual, knows 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 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 (a personal favorite actor of mine) 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 a directing genius, and his work here is tip-top.
Something has to be said about the beautiful Savannah scenery of this movie. What I could say about it probably couldn't do it justice. 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, well, average. There's nothing inherently well-done about it. It just sort of goes from point A to B to the obvious twist C. In fact, a lot of the film seems to be playing toward an obvious twist. Halfway through the movie, I began to move away slightly from the actual plot in an effort to figure out what "surprise" they were going to throw at me. I came back to the plot 3/4s of the way through, having guessed it (correctly, I might add). It didn't ruin the story for me, but it's a game that a good script wouldn't have me playing, or, even if I did play, I shouldn't have won.
I think the possible power of this film is best exemplified by a tiny anecdote I have to relate. Toward the end of the movie, after a particularly dramatic sequence, somebody's cellular phone went off right behind me. Usually, I'm annoyed by this, but I took the opportunity to half-watch the movie for a moment, and half-gauge this woman's reaction while she was talking on the phone (I'm getting really good at this sort of split attention thing). Well, she was crying; Softly sobbing as she explained to the caller that she was in the theater and couldn't be bothered. When the film ended, this woman had progressed to a Kleenex-level emotional crisis. This isn't just because of the drama and "weepie" content, I believe, but also because of the powerful mixture of good, realistic performances, and the horror of Annie Wilson's daily life as a potent psychic, whose power is as much a curse as it is a gift.
Despite script problems, I recommend this film highly to Raimi, Blanchett, horror, and mainstream fans. There's something for everyone in this film, and it should be, by all rights, a financial success. Then again, so should a lot of films that end up on the bottom of the weekly top 10...but that's another story altogether. This really works best on the theater screen, the only place where Raimi's visual genius can truly be savored. However, you can still see it on video for the intimacy of Blanchett's performance.