By Rob Blackwelder
Warning: This review begins with a wildly off-subject tangent.
O, woe! What hope can we have for director Sam Raimi's 2002 "Spider-Man" movie now that he has made two utterly conventional Hollywood flicks in a row?
Once a tongue-in-cheek sovereign of campy cult classics like "Evil Dead 2," "Darkman" and "The Quick and the Dead" -- not to mention the producer of TV's uber-campy "Xena" -- Raimi went straight two years ago with the chilling psychological thriller "A Simple Plan." Then last year he went soft with "For Love of the Game," a middling, maudlin baseball romance starring Kevin Costner.
Raimi's new movie is "The Gift," a disappointingly predictable psychic whodunit with a script so pedestrian it feels like an albatross around the necks of its marquee pedigree players.
The cinematically dexterous Cate Blanchett ("Elizabeth," "The Talented Mr. Ripley") stars as Anne Wilson, a widowed Louisiana swamp mama with an extrasensory gift she uses to scrape together a living in her redneck town by reading fortunes.
She has a few believers -- like an emotionally disturbed local mechanic (Giovanni Ribisi) and a battered housewife (Hilary Swank), who turn to Anne as a confessor and counselor when the horror of their lives overwhelms them.
But she also has quite a few noisy detractors who like to accuse her of witchcraft. One of them is Swank's horrifyingly violent husband (Keanu Reeves), who begins terrorizing Anne and threatening her kids when he catches his wife having her cards read.
The plot, however, centers on Anne's supernatural assistance in a murder investigation after the disappearance of a sexy young Jezebel of a socialite (Katie Holmes) who had been engaged to the local elementary school principal (Greg Kinnear).
Haunted by grisly visions of the dead girl, Anne eventually leads the sheriff to the body, dumped in a pond on Reeves' property. Her testimony helps put him behind bars. But when the girl's ghost doesn't rest, Anne realizes the killer is still out there and she puts herself in danger by conspicuously digging deeper into the crime.
"The Gift" is blessed with truly gripping performances of realistically disturbed characters. The acting is most definitely not the problem.
Blanchett is so powerfully convincing as a telepath that her tormented emotional state seems to cause the film running through the projector to shudder in empathy. Swank (last year's Oscar winner for "Boys Don't Cry"), sporting the best trailer trash mullet hair-do in cinema history, is staggering in her trapped-animal role as the black-and-blue wife who sees no escape from her horrifying husband.Even Keanu Reeves -- he of the wooden "Whoa!" -- gives what has to be the best performance of his career as Swank's monstrous spouse. I honestly felt like he might jump off the screen at any moment and beat me to a bloody pulp.
No, the problem isn't the acting. The problem is the story (written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson), which is riddled with logical loopholes and patched together with gimmicks so blatant that with a smaller caliber cast, this movie would have been lucky to land on the USA network.Before the plot even begins in earnest, several hackneyed spook movie conventions kick in -- like the wind that blows eerily through Blanchett's hair every time she has a vision -- signaling a serious lack of creativity.
What's worse is that despite Blanchett's best efforts, by the picture's halfway mark, Anne has begun to look like such a certifiable idiot that the viewer can't help but second-guess her every move.
You don't have to be a psychic to figure out that you're asking for trouble by running around telling all the former suspects in a murder that you think the killer is still on the loose. And how dumb do you have to be to go back to the pond with one of them...alone...at night...in the rain?
Raimi does maintain a tense, spine-tingling aura throughout the movie. But that and the acting by themselves are not enough to forgive this film's wholesale predictability, its trite plot devices nor its insipid, miracle rescue finale.
Sam Raimi was never a remarkable director, but he didn't used to take himself so seriously without cause. The fact that he has -- with a straight face -- made a paranormal movie as mundane as "The Gift" has robbed me of my ability to get excited about a movie just because he's behind the wheel. And that just makes me sad.
Run time: 111 mins
In Theaters: Friday 19th January 2001
Box Office USA: $11.2M
Box Office Worldwide: $12M
Distributed by: Paramount Classics
Production compaines: Lakeshore Entertainment, Alphaville Films
Contactmusic.com: 2 / 5
Rotten Tomatoes: 57%
Fresh: 67 Rotten: 51
IMDB: 6.7 / 10
Director: Sam Raimi
Starring: Cate Blanchett as Annie Wilson, Giovanni Ribisi as Buddy Cole, Keanu Reeves as Donnie Barksdale, Katie Holmes as Jessica King, Greg Kinnear as Wayne Collins, Hilary Swank as Valerie Barksdale, Gary Cole as David Duncan, Rosemary Harris as Annie's Granny, J.K. Simmons as Sheriff Pearl Johnson, Chelcie Ross as Kenneth King, David Brannen as Ben Wilson, Michael Jeter as Gerald Weems, Kim Dickens as Linda, John Beasley as Albert Hawkins, Lynnsee Provence as Mike Wilson, Hunter McGilvray as Miller Wilson
Also starring: J.K Simmons
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