The Gift is obviously a labor of love for Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, childhood friends who co-wrote the script, which is loosely based on the life of Thornton’s mother, a reputed psychic. This also marks the re-teaming of Sam Raimi and Thornton, whose previous project, A Simple Plan, earned Thornton an Oscar nomination. The Gift – shares with that film the theme of redemption, and despite its supernatural premise, The Gift focuses on real human issues, making it an engaging viewing, even if one has an inclination against stories involving clairvoyance and ESP. The Gift is quite simply, a good old-fashioned suspense thriller that owes a bit to the original Cape Fear, both in Sam Raimi’s direction and Keanu Reeves’s terrific performance as the abusive redneck Donnie Barksdale, who could be a long lost relative to Max Cady. The film may be a run-of-the-mill supernatural murder mystery with all of the elements one expects, but the direction by Sam Raimi and the performances from the stellar cast are far from generic. Fans of melodramatic, gothic potboilers will welcome many unexpected surprises not to mention ghostly apparitions, courtroom drama and enough red herrings to make Hitchcock smile.
Reeves electrifies the screen with his bad boy image, allowing viewers to truly feel his menace and rage as the man falsely imprisoned for the murder of a woman with whom he was having an illicit affair (Katie Holmes). The bearded Reeves holds his own against a fine cast led by the truly remarkable Cate Blanchett. Blanchett’s performance is the glue that holds this film together. Her ability to disappear into the role is amazing, registering unspoken pain visible in her facial expressions and her beautiful eyes. Her Annie goes on a terrifying journey of discovery as the uncertain, tortured psychic, and her performance brings Annie’s humanity to the surface with ease. Oscar winner Hilary Swank has a small but critical part as the battered wife who just can’t leave her abusive husband; Giovanni Ribisi poignantly gives a nice turn as a troubled young man who doubles as Blanchett’s guardian angel; Holmes is saucy and sassy as the naughty girl who’s laid every guy in town; Greg Kinnear, unfortunately, doesn’t leave much of an impression.
With a reported budget of around $10 million, director Sam Raimi eschews trendy effects for a straightforward approach. A great deal of attention is paid to the emotional lives of nearly everyone involved, and Annie’s telepathic powers are never invested in any cheap genre ways. One particular stand out moment sees her grandmother deliver a warning from beyond the grave. Raimi also does not rush the setup and allows it to unfold gradually with characters introduced with an equally unhurried accuracy. Raimi’s use of thunder, lightning, dark hallways and shadows conjures a thick ambiance of dread and mystery.
Truth be told, The Gift shifts into autopilot in the second act. There are also two twists at the end, neither surprising – and thus a disappointing finale to what is nevertheless an above average supernatural mystery thriller.
- Ricky D