Hoping from genre to genre and from period to period, Aussie Cate Blanchett proves to be an actress with a limitless range, blessed with the ability to sport various accents without calling attention to her technique. In the new Sam Raimi's supernatural thriller, The Gift, Blanchett plays Annie Wilson, a young widow who possesses special psychic powers. Annie's husband had died several years ago in a mysterious explosion and she's now raising alone her three young boys. Barely able to make ends meet, she supports herself by offering readings to the some of the most bizarre inhabitants of Brixton, a small Southern town. The first chapters introduce the eccentric characters, one by one. Last year's Oscar-winner Hilary Swank plays a minor role, Valerie, a battered wife abused by a vulgar, adulterous husband, Donnie (Keanu Reeves, cast against type). Giovanni Ribisi is Buddy, a deeply disturbed mechanic with a serious Freudian problem. Greg Kinnear seems to play the film's only decent person, Wayne, the local school's principal who's engaged to the beautiful but sluttish Jessica, played by the appealing Katie Holmes.
The episodic narrative is occasionally fractured by Annie's dreams and visions, some of which are truly horrifying, such as waking up in the middle of night feeling she's strangled by a stranger, or watching buckets of water suddenly turn into blood. What gives this Southern Gothic saga dramatic momentum and shape is Jessica's disappearance and the later revelation that she had been murdered and dumped in the pond. A conventional court trial, a throwback to American melodrama of the 1950s and 1960s, occupies the film's second half, in which Donnie is convicted. However, Annie–and the audience–know better, and rest of the story devoted to disclosing the real killer.
The Gift is a disappointingly minor league for all concerned: screenwriters Billy Bob Thronton and Tom Epperson, who had penned the terrific neo-noir One False Move, and particularly to director Sam Raimi, whose last film, A Simple Plan, was a brilliant suspense thriller with an unsettling edge and a complex moral parable about the debilitating effects of greed. Nonetheless, always the efficient craftsman and pop entertainer, Raimi (The Evil Dead, Dark Man) imbues his human redemption tale with realistic detail and striking visuals, though by today's standards the special effects are too humble. Designer Neil Spisak and cinematographer Jamie Anderson show admirable attention to detail in capturing the atmosphere of ordinary life in a dormant Georgia town.
Failing to deliver as a suspenser, The Gift relies heavily on the pedigree of its name cast, which does elevate the old-fashioned yarn to a more serious patina. The only reason to see this mildly engaging thriller it Blanchett, who carries the entire film on her shoulders.