The only witness to the crime wasn't even there.
Sam Raimi has turned into quite the auteur filmmaker. Most fans know him from his work on the highly popular cult classic The Evil Dead and its two sequels, Evil Dead II: Dead By Dawn and Army Of Darkness. Since then Raimi has gone on to direct numerous other "Hollywood" films, including Darkman, The Quick and the Dead, and 1998's elegant A Simple Plan. A Simple Plan marked a new direction for Raimi, showing that he could do stylized drama as well as hyperkinetic horror movies. Working from a script co-written by A Simple Plan star Billy Bob Thornton, Raimi used his sure hand to direct the critically acclaimed thriller The Gift. Starring Cate Blanchett (Elizabeth), Keanu Reeves (The Matrix), Giovanni Ribisi (Gone In 60 Seconds), Katie Holmes (Wonder Boys), Hilary Swank (Boys Don't Cry) and Greg Kinnear (As Good As It Gets), The Gift comes specially wrapped on DVD from Paramount.
Facts of the Case
Annie Wilson (Blacnhett) is a widowed psychic who uses her talent to tell the fortunes of local residents in the small town of Brixton, Georgia. She's a soft-spoken woman whose husband died a year ago, leaving her to raise three children on her own.
The town of Brixton is populated with the type of small town folk you'd imagine would be in a movie like this: there's the shy local mechanic Buddy Cole (Ribisi), the wealthy Jessica (Holmes) and her fiancé Wayne (Kinnear), the abused Valerie (Swank) and her vicious redneck husband Donnie (Reeves). Many of these characters connect to Annie because she uses her psychic abilities (which her grandmother called a "gift") to tell their fortunes.
At first, we are given a look at most of these people's daily lives. Buddy is a literal time bomb waiting to explode, based on a shady past with his father. Wayne, an elementary school principal, is soon to be married to Jessica, a rich sexpot who flirts with every man in the vicinity. Valerie is abused daily by Donnie but refuses to leave him because of his threats to kill her if she does. Annie and Donnie are not on good terms because Annie told Valerie to leave him. Donnie in turn threatens Annie and her three children with violence. It's like one big soap opera in Brixton.
One night Annie attends a social event at a country club with her friend Linda (Kim Dickens). There she runs into Wayne whom she seems to share an attraction spark with. They chat for a while and go their separate ways. The next morning it's discovered that Jessica has gone missing. The authorities are baffled by the case and don't know where else to turn. In effect this leads them and Jessica's father (Chelie Ross) to Annie and her psychic abilities. Through haunted dreams and visions she is able to lead them to a pond where Jessica's body is found.
From here a spiral effect takes place where cover-ups and lies run amuck. Annie's "gift" has served her well in the past. Can she use it to help solve this brutal crime?
The Gift is a much more complicated film than what I've just described. There are many other twists and turns during the movie, but I feel obliged not to spoil many of the surprises that are waiting for the viewer.
I don't know a whole lot about the psychic community. I've been in a palm reader's office only once and by the looks of it, they all like to decorate in dark purple with heavy curtains and lots of candles. The Gift shows a psychic using her abilities as if she were a mechanic working on a broken down minivan—it's all in a day's work. Raimi even said that he wanted the character of Annie to use her abilities "in the most normal of ways." The script by Thornton and Tom Epperson (A Family Thing) is very atmospheric and knows its territory well. The dialogue rings true, especially in a local sheriff who believes none of Annie's "fortune telling nonsense." Michael Jeter's small town lawyer could have easily been pulled out of a Louisiana swampland with his nuances and hick-like ticks. Though the script certainly has its flaws, it is one of the more original works to come out of Hollywood lately.
Blanchett is exceptional in her role as Annie. Annie is seeped in softness, though she's grown hard without the love of her husband. Even her children notice that she's shut down without him. When she's thrust into this murder mystery haphazardly she's terrified; not only is her life in danger, but also her children. Annie only wants a good life with her kids and her job, nothing more. On the opposite end is the darkly malicious Donnie. Who knew that Keanu Reeves could play such a chilling character so well? I was genuinely blown away by his stunning portrayal of every woman's worst nightmare. His grizzled beard and jaded speech are indications of how ignorant and violent he is long before we see his actions up close. The rest of the supporting cast is excellent, featuring fine performances by Katie Holmes, Oscar winner Hilary Swank and especially Greg Kinnear. Kinnear has proven that he's very apt at comedy. In The Gift he shows that he can be equally as powerful in a dramatic role. Finally, there is Giovanni Ribisi as the erratic auto mechanic Buddy Cole. Ribisi proves with this one role that he is one of the best actors of his generation. Buddy's character is so complex that he might have fallen flat in another actor's shoes. Ribisi pulls out all the stops with his portrayal of the pushed-to-the-edge Buddy, though never loses the audience's sympathies.
The Gift is presented in 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen. The image quality on this DVD comes close to perfect. All colors were bright and clear with blacks being proportionately solid. There was no grain, artifacting or edge enhancement spotted. Everything about the image quality on The Gift is top notch. A very big round of applause is in order for Paramount's time and efforts into a wonderful transfer.
The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is also well done, if not as stunning as the video portions. The track is clean and clear of any distortion or hiss. Dialogue was easily heard with music and effects mixed well. Since this is mostly a dialogue driven film there wasn't much use of all speakers, though during Annie's visions the whole system kicked in nicely. Also included are Dolby Surround tracks both in English and French, as well as English subtitles.
Though The Gift is a bit weak in supplements, we do get a small handful of goodies. The most beneficial of these is the "Cast and Crew Interviews" featuring director Sam Raimi, Hilary Swank, Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, and Greg Kinnear. All parties give their insights into their characters and the story, and do a bit of gushing on each other ("Oh, that Sam Raimi is soooooo talented!" one actor spouts). Also included is an anamorphic theatrical trailer, as well as a music video for "Furnace Room Lullaby" by Neko Case and Her Boyfriends (not a clue who they are, but the song wasn't bad).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Sadly, once the last quarter rolls around, The Gift is not able to sustain its momentum. Maybe I'm psychic, but I was able to spot most of the final scene from a good mile away. The Gift also includes a head-scratcher of an ending that will make most viewers go "huh?" It's as if the writers had run out of ideas and didn't know how else to end the film. Even with these flaws, The Gift is a very well wrought thriller.
For fans of the great Sam Raimi, The Gift is required viewing. A moody thriller filled with visceral characters and a good story, The Gift is worthy of your movie going attention. The audio and video portions are excellent, though the extra material is a bit thin. If, however, you're an honest-to-God psychic then I guess there's no point in seeing this; you already know what's going to happen.
A great "gift" for audiences in the mood for a dark thrill ride in the backwoods of Georgia.
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Scales of Justice
• Theatrical Trailer
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