The Gift September 8, 2015
Sam Raimi’s The Gift is a curious whodunit. While encrusted with the most shining of mainstream stars, it’s surprisingly stakeless, exciting to a point but not pulse-pounding when it comes to finding out the identity of its killer. I suppose Agatha Christie’s the only artist who can really make a successful murder mystery — most seem to lose their way in a swamp of too many characters and too many plot setups — and Raimi, ridding himself of his erstwhile gorehound instincts, is hardly able to elevate the material.
The titular gift isn’t a quote unquote present but rather a skill that affects Georgia native Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett), a psychic. A widowed mother with three sons, she uses her talent to supplement the bank account of the family, cashing in government checks with one hand and telling the fortunes of the townspeople with the other. She’s a kind woman, caring and decent — her closest customers see her as a confidant. Only the close-minded who have not yet met her look at her with paranoid eyes that figure she’s probably a witch, a Satan worshipper.
Annie is increasingly concerned by the plight of one of her customers, Valerie (Hilary Swank), a housewife with a husband (Keanu Reeves) so abusive it becomes a worry that he may, in fact, kill her. Also alarming is Buddy Cole (Giovanni Ribisi), a teenager more unstable than a ticking time bomb. So when the town whore (Katie Holmes) is found murdered, eyes are immediately drawn in the direction of the hot-tempered redneck and the erratic freak. But Annie isn’t so sure either is guilty, and the killer, it seems, might off her before she has the chance to say so.
While Blanchett is committed and excellent as Annie, The Gift feels more like a star vehicle gone wrong, meant to cash in on all its big names but ending up a minorly entertaining piece of work more reminiscent of a made-for-TV thriller than a sizably budgeted one. Granted, it only cost $10 million to produce. But what should have been a delicious stewing of Southern melodrama and the supernatural is only passable.
The screenplay, co-written by Billy Bob Thorton, is effective when it comes to its dialogue and its characters: his writing, leanly authentic, is strong enough to draw characters convincing in their everyday simplicity. But missing is the sort of urgency usually found in a whodunit — the film is so focused on Annie that it forgets to make a killer worth fearing, let alone a plot that wants us to care. Perhaps the film would be better off if it leaned toward the horror spectrum. Its supernatural thriller phoniness doesn’t provide the adrenaline shot desired by most. So here The Gift lies, fifteen years old, neither good nor bad, neither believable nor ludicrous. It sits on a plateau of so-so, working like a buffer for later, better films of the involved actors’ careers. C