The Gift
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In the not so distant past, Sam Raimi was one of the most idiosyncratic filmmakers in America. His films were filled with strange angles, accelerating dolly shots, and extreme close-ups. But with A Simple Plan, Raimi entered the Hollywood mainstream in a surprisingly subtle and intelligent movie that contained few traces of his tongue-in-cheek hyperactive filmmaking style, evidenced in films such as Evil Dead and on TV in Xena: Warrior Princess.

Raimi's newest film, The Gift, continues Raimi's assimilation into the mainstream. The Gift is a relatively anonymous whodunit mystery based on a script by Billy Bob Thornton. The story echoes To Kill a Mockingbird without ever seeming derivative. Both movies, for example, take place in the deep South, involve crimes that lead to courtroom drama, give us violent rednecks as threats against the central characters, and present us with disturbed guardian angels who come to the rescue at opportune moments. But the movies have completely different central concerns. While To Kill a Mockingbird focused on a young girl and her brother and pushed the adult characters to the background, The Gift focuses almost completely on adults.

Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett) is a fortune teller who works out of her home. She has three sons that she tries to raise on her husband's social security and the "donations" she gets from reading fortune cards. Her husband was killed in an explosion and now she struggles to make ends meet. When a beautiful young woman named Jessica King (Katie Holmes) disappears, the police turn to Annie for help. The local sheriff is quite embarrassed to be asking Annie for assistance (he asks for "no hocus-pocus or carryin' on"), but the missing woman's father (Chelcie Ross) and fiancÚ (Greg Kinnear) are willing to put their faith in Annie.

stills from The Gift
[click photos for larger versions]

The movie's whodunit structure presents us with several possible killers. As the belligerent redneck husband of one of Annie's best customers, Keanu Reeves draws most of the attention as the possible culprit. In addition, he had an affair with Jessica. Did she call it off and did this anger him? Hillary Swank plays Reeves' frightened wife. She keeps returning to Annie for help. Did she know about the affair and then take revenge? Jessica's fiancÚ, Wayne Collins (Kinnear), sees his future wife flirting with other men. Does he know about her numerous infidelities? And is this soft spoken grade school principal capable of committing murder? At a party, we saw Jessica plant a not particularly platonic kiss on her father. Was that a sign of incest? And is her father jealous of his daughter's lovers? The local auto mechanic (Giovanni Ribisi) is haunted by demons from his childhood. Is he now psychotic? Jessica was also conducting a dalliance with the county prosecutor (Gary Cole). Is he somehow involved?

Alfred Hitchcock didn't make whodunits. He liked to let us the know the identity of the killer -- so that we would squirm when the hero or heroine ventured into danger. We would realize the threat even if the characters on screen did not, and there lies the suspense. In The Gift, by its very design, we're given several potential killers so that the filmmakers can pull any of them out of a magician's hat. Voila! The killer! And while this approach can be fun, it's also exceptionally superficial. It refuses to allow us to get to know the characters because if they appear as complete, well-rounded characters, we then know what they're capable of. We then know if they're potential killers. So by design, the movie only probes a couple millimeters below the surface. Even Annie is subject to this superficial treatment. After watching her for nearly two hours, it's difficult to determine who she is other than a fortune teller and a mother to three boys. Cate Blanchett is a remarkable actress (who was absolutely superb in Elizabeth), but this role gives her little to hang onto.

The Gift feels like a pain-by-numbers effort, where Sam Raimi has become a director for hire. The resulting movie is enjoyable, but it's the kind of movie where you've seen everything after one visit. It won't hold up well to repeat viewings because once you know the killer's identify, the rest of the movie becomes a big red herring. As a result, The Gift becomes a totally inconsequential movie. There's nothing wrong with creating an inconsequential movie, but coming after the promise that Raimi showcased in A Simple Plan, Raimi's newest movie is a definite disappointment.

[rating: 2 of 4 stars]

Movie Studio Web site:
Paramount Classics
Movie Web site: The Gift



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