The modestly budgeted “The Gift” marks a homecoming of sorts for director Sam Raimi, who returns to his roots in the cinema of the supernatural after a largely lambasted spin on the big-bucks mainstream field with the Kevin Costner starrer “For Love of the Game”. But unlike his landmark “Evil Dead” splatter laffer series, Raimi is going for straight-faced chills this time around — in a way, melding his flamboyant “Evil Dead” instincts with the more cerebral thriller elements he successfully tried on for size in “A Simple Plan,” his big studio breakthrough. To twist a tired cliché, the whole is a step short of the sum of its parts.
One of the strongest parts in question is the central performance of Cate Blanchett, shedding her usual period piece garb for the role of Annie Wilson, a widowed mother of three sons in modern-day Brixton, Georgia. The gift of the title is Annie’s clairvoyance, which enables her to earn a modest living as a psychic reader despite the protests of the town’s more religious residents, who see her ability as the work of the Devil. When Jessica King (Katie Holmes), a vivacious young member of Brixton high society, mysteriously disappears, Annie’s gift forces her into a prominent — albeit reluctant — place in the investigation. Blanchett’s modulated turn is key to the psychological horror of the piece; her controlled work as Annie, who finds herself increasingly unable to control or make sense of her visions, adds a layer of subtlety that not only makes the proceedings a bit more unsettling but also consistently grounded in a convincing reality.
For the most part, Blanchett’s co-stars provide able support. The big surprise is Keanu Reeves, a real embarrassment as a villain in the atrocious-as-a-whole “The Watcher,” in the role of this film’s main baddie, hot-tempered redneck Donnie Barksdale (a part that would have been a perfect fit for one of “The Gift”‘s writers, Billy Bob Thornton). As Donnie’s abused wife and Annie’s loyal client Valerie, Hilary Swank makes an impression — unfortunately, however, one not as strong as the one left by the ridiculously awful hair extensions she wears. Holmes memorably reveals another side of herself in every sense as the sexy Jessica, and Greg Kinnear is ideally cast as her nice guy fiancé (though one wonders why he’s the only guy in town without an accent). Sticking out like a sore thumb from the rest of the cast is Giovanni Ribisi, who plays a troubled young mechanic befriended by Annie. Ribisi is a talented actor, but he has a tendency to fly way off the handle if not held properly in check — and that is the case here; it’s hard to believe that his scenery-devouring turn once generated some Oscar buzz.
And any preliminary awards buzz “The Gift” may have once had is ultimately done in by Thornton and Tom Epperson’s script. To their credit, they do succeed in setting up the flavor of this tiny Southern town, and the character of Annie and her plight are well-drawn before Blanchett’s performance is factored in. But the film is more a genre piece than anything else, and it’s under these more modest demands that the script falls short. While a few of the puzzle pieces come together in an interesting way and there is the occasional creepy sequence (though a lot of the credit for both goes to Raimi’s ever-inventive visuals), the film’s central mystery is less than one. The revelation of the person responsible for Jessica’s disappearance isn’t so much a twist as an inevitable, easily foreseeable turn; a fairly humdrum climax fails to compensate for the disappointing lack of surprise, rendering this “Gift” more akin to a lump of coal, albeit one with an uncommonly inviting sheen.