If you’re expecting the teaming of Sam Raimi (director) and Billy Bob Thornton (co-screenwriter) to result in The Evil Dead Meets Sling Blade, you both will and won’t be disappointed. The Gift does indeed blend the in-depth characterizations of Sling Blade with the stylish filmmaking of Raimi’s Evil Dead movies, but Raimi seems uncharacteristically subdued here — as if slightly weighed down by the deeper material at hand. The results are a very good movie, but not a great one. Cate Blanchett (The Talented Mr. Ripley) stars as Annie Wilson, a young widow who happens to possess psychic abilities — combined with a natural flair for psychoanalysis — that allow her to eke out a small living for herself and her three sons in a small Georgia town. As might be expected in that setting, her gift causes some to view her as in league with the devil, especially in the case of sadistic wife-beater Donnie Barksdale (Keanu Reeves in a surprising and chilling performance), who objects to the fact that Annie counsels his battered wife to leave him. This starts a chain of events that lead to murder, revenge and a not-untypical Billy Bob Thornton uncovering of the strangeness — and even unwholesomeness — that lies just beneath the surface of the traditionally “normal.” That much of the film is fine, and deeply perceptive. Thornton’s script and Raimi’s direction totally capture the essence of a provincial Southern town, complete with all its dirty and pathetic little secrets. Before the film is two minutes old, Raimi has sketched in a genuine sense of place, and hinted at the underside with an almost subliminal shock-cut warning of that which is to come. The reality of the town juxtaposed with Annie’s effectively unsettling visions is brilliantly achieved, while a subplot (that turns out to be more central than it might seem) involving an emotionally unstable man, Buddy Cole (Giovanni Ribisi) is almost shattering in its intensity. Buddy’s angry, clearly bipolar character stems from a legacy of child abuse and repressed memories, and the parts of the film dealing with that character are quite the best work Raimi has ever done. Ribisi’s portrayal brings the pathos, complexity and pent-up anger of a repressed psyche to alarming life. The parts of the film that work are astonishing. Unfortunately, the murder-thriller plot that marks the bulk of the film, while beautifully done, quickly becomes all too obvious. By the time the film gets to its “startling” revelations about who did and didn’t murder the town’s full-time leading socialite (and part-time all-purpose tramp), Jessica King (Katie Holmes), the viewer is two jumps ahead of the script. Nor is their a great deal of surprise involving the supernatural manifestation that is supposed to come as the film’s biggest shock of all. However, so much of The Gift is good-to-nearly-brilliant that it’s impossible to write it off as a failed thriller, and it isn’t even that. The thrills are all there. It’s just that the plot housing them isn’t strong enough to support them. What we are left with is a mixed bag — too good to ignore, but not good enough to make the leap into greatness. Still, for atmosphere, character development and creative use of the horror genre, The Gift deserves more than a passing nod.
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