The Gift (2000)

Sam Raimi is one of the most well-known horror directors.  Due to The Evil Dead and its sequels, he was one of a handful that took the genre in new directions.  He had his own style, combining horror with humor, and it largely (and has largely) stayed an affair of family and friends. 

However, sometime in the 1990s, he seemed to have decided that he really didn't want to be known for that any more.  Which was fine; A Simple Plan was much better than the awful book it was based on, and featured Raimi becoming less wild but still as striking in his directing, no doubt due to his work with the Coen Brothers.  He got his vanity project out of the way - a baseball movie called For Love of the Game - and then tepidly stuck his toe back in the horror waters with The Gift.

I'll admit that when I first saw this I was unimpressed.  I still wanted the old Raimi back, with those weird angles, frenetic camera work, hammy dialogue and performances and everything else he was in the beginning.  But, the point is, he grew up.  After this he was the one who was able to bring Spiderman to the big screen after all these years, even if the third movie was a horrible misfire.  Strangely, I think I have grown up quite a bit as well, as I find this a great companion piece to A Simple Plan. 

Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett) is a widow with three kids living in a small Southern town.  She mainly supports herself by doing psychic readings for a number of the townspeople.  One of them is Valerie Barksdale (Hilary Swank), a battered wife who comes to Annie largely in the hope that she will be able to let her know if something good may happen.  Another prominent client is Buddy Cole (Giovanni Ribisi), a mentally disturbed young man whom she has tried to nudge into receiving professional help.

Valerie's husband Donnie (Keanu Reeves) sees something sinister in his wife visiting Annie for readings, believing the fortune teller to be a Satanist.  He begins to stalk her and her children, making violent threats and even breaking into her house.  Her attempts to get him to stop, including calling the police, end up with matters getting worse as most of the men in the town are willing to overlook Donnie's faults as they all grew up with him.

Another problem is that her kids are not happy that she has tried to avoid grieving for her husband.  Her friend Linda (Kim Dickens) tries to get her to go out and meet people again, and she does feel some connection with a man named Wayne (Greg Kinnear), but Wayne is preparing to marry heiress Jessica King (Katie Holmes).  Jessica, though willing to get married, has no compunction about practically cheating on Wayne with other men right in front of him - heading for a bathroom tryst at the country club while Wayne and Annie talk.

Donnie Barksdale's threats grow, as he tries to kidnap Annie's son Miller (Hunter McGilvray), and is stopped by Buddy, who reacts violently and suicidally to the situation.  This is also around the time that Jessica suddenly disappears, and the hunt for her quickly grows cold.  Despite the skepticism of Sheriff Pearl Johnson (J.K. Simmons), Wayne and Jessica's father (Kenneth King) decide to give Annie a try.  At first, while under pressure, she doesn't see anything, but that night she has a vision of Jessica wrapped in a chain, with visions of a pond.

The description of the pond matches in many ways to that on the Barksdales's property, and after dragging the waters Jessica's body is found and Donnie is arrested.  Much of the town turns against Annie, especially after she breaks down during testimony when questioned by the defense attorney (Michael Jeter).  Still, it doesn't seem to matter how they got the evidence, but the fact that everything points to Donnie, who also had an affair with Jessica, murdering her.  Meanwhile, Buddy also goes off the deep end, trying to murder his father when repressed memories of childhood abuse come pouring forth.

With Buddy and Donnie both incarcerated, Annie's life seems to be getting back to normal.  However, Jessica's ghost persists, and she begins to believe that the real killer may still be out there - and that he may be coming for her next to make sure his identity remains a secret.

I think part of why I was frustrated with this movie originally is because Annie is a seemingly weak. character.  She easily breaks down on the stand, barely does anything to defender herself from Donnie (while somewhat chiding Valerie for not leaving him) and spends most of her time trying to hide from the world.  I still find her frustratingly so, but it now makes her a bit more human.  When Donnie comes violently into her home, and the police refuse to do anything about it because most of them are hunting buddies with him, it kind of underscores why Valerie can't just up and leave.  It seems that Annie thinks that because she is psychic that she has some sort of control over the world around her and, time and again, she is reminded she does not, and that makes her more isolated and frightened.

Cate Blanchett is the type of actress that can't help but be good in almost anything you put her in.  Still, I find it frustrating that they just can't get Southern actors to use their own accents when making movies based in the South instead of getting Brits and Australians.  Then again, with so many British and Australian actors in this country, I again don't understand why they have so many Americans do horrible accents and pretend to be from overseas.  At least Blanchett is skillful enough to pull it off while imbuing Annie with a number of different layers instead of just throwing in every cliched psychic trope.

The acting surprise in The Gift is Keanu Reeves.  Normally he is a focal point because of how bad he is, but here he truly pulls off the role as a wife beating redneck.  He is truly frightening, physically intimidating and, though a bit over the top, just a wound-up ball of rage that's ready to explode on anyone at any time.  One gets the feeling that it's not just a good ol' boy network that keeps the police from doing anything, but that even his so-called friends may be scared of him as well.  The only person that seems to scare Donnie is Buddy, since his unpredictability and utter disregard of Donnie is something that he's not used to encountering.

Giovanni Ribisi is the other standout, playing a role that was originally meant to be filled by Billy Bob Thornton, who was responsible for co-writing the movie. He may seem a subplot at first, but Buddy becomes more and more important to the main plot as things go on, especially in how Annie perceives her abilities and her limitations.  Like Reeves, Ribisi occasionally takes it over the top, but it seems to work in context. 

The reason I compare The Gift to A Simple Plan is because, while there are horror elements here just as there are thriller elements in the latter, the focus is on the characters rather than on stylized violence.  While one of the major faults of The Gift is that it could have been trimmed in length, we at least get more than typical Southern stereotypes - although there are enough of them in the movie regardless.  Donnie is, of course, racist and antisemitic, as if all his other failings weren't enough, while some of the people who support him look like they were given the game Redneck Rampage as a template for how to dress and act.

Looking back now it is a solid movie, with a great twist ending (not in who the killer is, which can be guessed almost as soon as she realizes Donnie isn't) and many of the leads giving some of the best performances of their career.  It just wasn't something that fit with what audiences wanted to see at the time, and I think most Sam Raimi fans were upset that he was doing stuff like this instead of another Evil Dead film.  I know I kind of was, simply because I missed his old style, even if I thought Army of Darkness pretty much wrapped things up for that series.  I was wrong, of course; Ash vs. the Evil Dead was definitely great while it lasted.

I know that if you are a fan of his you have revisited many of his horror films a number of times.  It is definitely time to give this one its due as well.

The Gift (2000)
Time: 111 minutes
Starring: Cate Blanchett, Keanu Reeves, Giovanni Ribisi, Hilary Swank, Katie Holmes, Greg Kinnear
Director: Sam Raimi


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