Screenwriting duo Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson serve up a grisly stew of Southern Gothic hooey in “The Gift,” but thanks to the skill of director Sam Raimi and the efforts of a strong ensemble cast, the dish, ridiculous as it may be, goes down surprisingly well. It’s hardly a great movie, but if you put yourself in the right frame of mind it can be an enjoyable one.
The title refers to the power of clairvoyance possessed by Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett), a widow with three young children struggling to make ends meet in a small Georgia town. She gives card readings to various of the locals, most notably Buddy Cole (Giovanni Ribisi), a deeply troubled garage mechanic with a submerged animosity toward his parents, and Valerie Barksdale (Hilary Swank), an abused woman who nonetheless can’t bring herself to leave her brutish husband Donnie (Keanu Reeves) despite Annie’s admonitions to do so. When Donnie finds out about the advice Valerie’s been getting, he menaces Annie and her sons, but before his threats can be realized, the psychic is drawn into the police investigation of the disappearance of a local rich girl, Jessica King (Katie Holmes), a seductive vixen engaged to elementary school principal Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear). Annie’s visions eventually lead to the apprehension of a suspect and a trial, but the legal process doesn’t end the mystery, and Annie must face a final confrontation before the case is truly solved and a modicum of peace restored to the cracker-barrel hamlet.
It should be obvious that this scenario doesn’t possess the edgy toughness of Thornton and Epperson’s first collaboration, “One False Move” (1991), or the easy charm of their second, “A Family Thing” (1996). “The Gift” is instead a lurid melodrama with supernatural overtones, heavy on an atmosphere steamy with secrets as well as southern humidity and often dependent on the hoariest contrivances of suspense movies (poor Annie must make her way through more semi-illuminated hallways in search of intruders or apparitions than the viewer can possibily count); and toward the close its twisted take on “To Kill a Mockingbird” goes way over the top. But Raimi, an expert at creating an unsettling mood even in the face of narrative implausibility, expertly employs all the devices of the genre to give the picture a genuinely eerie, creepy feel.
He’s aided by a first-rate case which seems to be enjoying the opportunity to play to the gallery. Blanchett, the Australian actress who’s demonstrated her versatility over the past few years in roles ranging from the wealthy obsessive in “Oscar and Lucinda” (1997) to the imperious queen of “Elizabeth” (1998) and the socialite of “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1999), shows her range once more with a convincing portrait of a woman desperately trying to be strong in the face of mounting terror; she even manages to persuade you that the character might actually possess the gift she claims. (The performance has much the same kind of depth, unusual in this sort of film, that Kevin Bacon’s did in last year’s even spookier–and grossly underrated–“Stir of Echoes.”) Swank can’t do much but look aggrieved in the role of the battered wife in tight-fitting slacks, and as the flirtatious bride-to-be Holmes acts as though she might be on the set of an Aaron Spelling TV series; but Reeves, whom Raimi is clever enough to present in short, carefully staged and edited sequences, conveys a sense of danger that he never came close to suggesting in his recent turn as a villain in “The Watcher,” and Ribisi elicits both sympathy and fear as the explosive Buddy. Kinnear’s affably lightweight personality is put to good use as the well-mannered Wayne, while Michael Jeter and Gary Cole chew up the scenery in the courtroom false-climax which is the picture’s weakest episode (Reeves is at his least impressive here, too).
In the final analysis, “The Gift” is just a high-toned B-movie which never achieves the ghostly elegance of “Stir of Echoes” or the logical inevitability of either that film or the last project on which Raimi and Thornton worked together, the equally convoluted but far richer “A Simple Plan” (1998). But it’s less obvious in its effects than “What Lies Beneath” was, and its very modesty makes it more fun than that overproduced summer frightfest. What Thornton, Epperson and Raimi have concocted is just a farrago of cornball Southern atmosphere, mystical hokum, generic suspense cliches and overripe melodramatic twists, but they’ve put these lowbrow elements together so cannily that if you’re willing to suspend disbelief for a couple of hours, you should find the result a real–if rather guilty–pleasure.