In "The Gift," Cate Blanchett plays Annie Wilson, a widowed mother in a
mossy southern town who inherited moderate clairvoyant abilities from
her grandmother. Annie supplements her monthly Social Security checks by
doing psychic readings for the locals, but instead of Tarot cards, she
uses a deck of cards with basic symbols on them. Now, to the best of my
understanding, these decks of cards depicting circles, squares, parallel
wavy lines, etc. are simply tools employed by researchers to test for
ESP, which begs the question: what the hell is Annie reading?
Granted, my knowledge in this area is limited, but I believe each Tarot
card has a specific meaning and that psychics divine messages from the
card faces and the order in which they are dealt. So what insight can be
drawn from basic geometric symbols? Surely this practice must be a
violation of the Supernatural Rules of Order. After all, if you can do
readings from ESP test cards, why not flash cards? Or recipe cards? Or
baseball cards ("Ah, it's a Sammy Sosa! You will have a life of
accomplishment, humility and lucrative endorsement deals.")
If my misgivings are sound, then Annie is either making a big mistake or
she's not very bright. The latter may be the case, as Annie does some
astonishingly stupid things later in the film.
The film, by the way, is the latest from Sam Raimi, who previously
offered the taut thriller, "A Simple Plan." Once again, Raimi proves
adept at assembling a strong cast and establishing an evocative
atmosphere. Unfortunately, the similarities between the two movies end
there. "The Gift" is an anemic throwaway that starts strong but fades
fast, due to a main plotline that offers few surprises and a secondary
story that is handled ineptly.
Shot from a dusty script by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, the
production follows Annie as she gets into a heap of trouble by
suggesting that battered wife Valerie Barksdale (Hilary Swank) should
seek help. Shortly after, Valerie's husband, Donnie (Keanu Reeves),
explodes into Annie's house and demands that she mind her own business,
while accusing her of worshipping Satan. Clearly, we do not need to ask
Jeff Foxworthy if this man might be a redneck.
In addition to Donnie and Valerie, Annie's circle of friends also
includes a mentally disturbed auto mechanic named Buddy Cole (fans of
"The Kids in the Hall" may insert their wisecracks here) with serious
parental issues, not to mention problems respecting other people's
personal space. Giovanni Ribisi does fine work with the role, managing
to make the character simultaneously creepy and endearing. The
resolution of Buddy's grim storyline is one of the most disappointing
parts of the film. Early on, his circumstances are given almost as much
screen time as Valerie's, but he quickly fades into the background. His
core situation is wrapped up early and abruptly in a scene so poorly
filmed that a key revelation becomes just one more element in a sea of
Raimi and company seem far more interested in getting and keeping Annie
in as much danger as possible. During a rare social outing, she
encounters oh-so-polite school principal Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear)
and his hot-to-trot fiancé, Jessica King (Katie Holmes, vamping it up
terribly and exposing her breasts for the first time onscreen). Annie
postpones buying wedding gifts when she spots Jessica screwing smarmy
lawyer David Duncan (Gary Cole) in the coatroom.
(WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD) Jessica disappears that night and frustrated
cops eventually (and reluctantly) turn to Annie, who gets a vision of a
female body submerged in a pond. Said pond belongs to (surprise!)
Donnie, who ends up convicted of her murder. Case closed? Of course not.
Subsequent visions convince Annie that Donnie is not the killer, so what
does she do? She races to share her revelation with a member of the tiny
pool of suspects. If only the woman had spent less time on psychic
readings and more time boning up on "Movie Clichés 101." I won't reveal
any more. Suffice to say that the story builds to a cheesy "Twilight
Zone" style climax (END SPOILERS).
The positives in "The Gift" come mostly from the actors. Blanchett,
Swank and Kinnear are all solid, with Ribisi even better, but the movie
belongs to Keanu Reeves, who delivers a remarkably strong performance.
Trite though they may be, scenes of him terrorizing Annie provide the
only truly scary moments in the film.
Actually, there is one moment even scarier. It's the realization that a
script this lame actually was made into a feature film.
Copyright © 2001 Edward Johnson-Ott