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'The Gift' overcomes
a so-so script with
great characters

January 25, 2001
By Franklin Harris

Sam Raimi is no stranger to horror movies, but his latest directorial effort, "The Gift," bares little resemblance to the films that made him a cult hero. It has none of the over-the-top, frenetic action that marks "Evil Dead" and "Evil Dead II." Instead, "The Gift," with its deliberate pacing and stark photography, more closely resembles Raimi's 1998 crime thriller, "A Simple Plan."

It's another skilled effort from an increasingly mature filmmaker.

With "The Gift," Raimi teams again with "A Simple Plan" star Billy Bob Thornton, who, along with Tom Epperson, provides the film's screenplay.

The story follows Annie Wilson, played by Australian actress Cate Blanchett ("Elizabeth"). Blanchett proves what most of us in the South have always suspected: Even someone from the other side of the globe can pull off a more convincing Southern accent than the typical Yankee.

Annie, recently widowed after her husband was killed in a factory explosion, struggles to support her three sons. To supplement her meager Social Security income, she gives "readings" to her clients in a sleepy Georgia town.

For her, there is nothing unusual about her psychic abilities. She's had them all her life, and they run in her family. At least that's what her grandmother told her.

Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett) confronts a wife-beating husband played by Keanu Reeves in supernatural murder mystery ''The Gift,'' directed by Sam Raimi, whose previous films include ''A Simple Plan'' and ''Evil Dead II.''
Courtesy Photo Copyright Paramount Classics
Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett) confronts a wife-beating husband played by Keanu Reeves in supernatural murder mystery "The Gift," directed by Sam Raimi, whose previous films include "A Simple Plan" and "Evil Dead II."
Naturally, not everyone in town is happy with the otherworldly advice Annie dispenses, least of all town stud and habitual wife beater Donnie Barksdale, played by a surprisingly good Keanu Reeves. He doesn't take kindly to Annie telling his wife, played by Oscar winner Hilary Swank ("Boys Don't Cry"), that she should leave him.

Still, Annie does her best to fit in, even joining her friend Linda, played by Huntsville native Kim Dickens ("Hollow Man"), for a night at the local country club.

That's where the plot kicks in.

Annie runs into her eldest son's principal,Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear), and, even though he is engaged to the town's resident Southern belle, Jessica King, played by "Dawson's Creek" star Katie Holmes, the two manage some heavy flirting.

But that's O.K., because, meanwhile, Jessica is doing far more with some guy in the powder room.

All is well until Jessica turns up missing and the baffled local authorities turn up on Annie's doorstep asking her to do that voodoo that she does so well. Not that they really believe in all that mumbo jumbo, mind you.

Nevertheless, Annie leads the sheriff to Jessica's body, submerged in a pond on property owned by -- you guessed it -- Donnie Barksdale.

And that's the problem with "The Gift": You'll guess everything. Strictly speaking, the movie is a supernatural whodunit. Unfortunately, despite a couple of only halfway convincing red herrings, it's pretty obvious who done it from the beginning.

"The Gift" could have benefited from the "Colombo" approach, with the audience knowing the identity of the killer from the outset and simply watching the characters slowly piece together the clues. If Thornton and Epperson really expect us to be surprised, well, I'd be surprised.

Fortunately, plot isn't what "The Gift" is really about. It's really about the odd assortment of characters that populate Raimi's and the screenwriters' fictional world.

There may be a few real-life Southern towns with as many eccentrics per capita, but they're dying out fast.

Rounding out the cast are J.K. Simmons as Sheriff Johnson and Gary Cole ("American Gothic") as a slimy district attorney (is there any other kind?).

There is also a subplot featuring Giovanni Ribisi ("The Mod Squad") as a mentally disturbed young man who will seem awfully familiar to those who have seen Thornton's breakout film, "Sling Blade."

Ultimately, outstanding performances throughout, including a solid performance by the normally forgettable Kinnear, and haunting cinematography make "The Gift" good enough to overcome the somewhat disappointing script.

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