The Gift

The Gift (2000)
Paramount Home Video
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, Greg Kinnear, Keanu Reeves, Katie Holmes, Hilary Swank
Extras: Making of Featurette, Music Video, Theatrical Trailer

"Messing with the Devil’s gonna get you burned…"

When someone says this to you, it’s a safe bet you’re either doing something most people consider wrong or are in fact messing with Lucifer’s and headed for some sore skin. In the case of "The Gift, " it’s the former for Annie Wilson, a small town single mom with the gift of foresight. Played with increasingly obvious talent by Cate Blanchett, Annie makes a decent living reading cards for people who want to know a bit about their lives before they live it. When a young socialite turns up missing, some of the locals turn to Annie with hopes her special talent will save the young one’s life. In the process, we learn that Annie’s gift can also sometimes be a curse. Directed with a delicate balance of thrill and subtlety by Sam Raimi, "The Gift" excels with its vision and extremely impressive cast to rise above a somewhat weak story.

Featuring an ensemble cast, "The Gift" nonetheless stays close to Annie. One of the first characters we meet is Valerie Barksdale (Hillary Swank), a chronic sufferer of spousal abuse and client of Annie’s. It doesn’t take a psychic to determine what Mrs. Barksdale needs to improve her life, but that’s always easier said than done. Her abuser and so-called husband Donny Barksdale (a bearded, hulking Keanu Reeves) makes it soon known that he does not approve of his wife seeing some psychic who is telling her to leave him. To make it clear just how serious he is, Donnie threatens to turn his abuse away from his own wife and on to Annie’s children instead. Around this time, we meet Buddy (Giovanni Ribisi) a young mechanic who was friends with Annie’s deceased husband. He treats Annie to free service, yet it quickly becomes clear that Buddy just isn’t quite right in the head. He can go from friendly kid to frightening psycho in about the time it takes to scratch your elbow. While he appears as if he might be on some kind of less than successful medication, we learn that the only treatment Buddy’s receiving is in the cards Annie reads. Again, he’s another client that may need more help than Annie can give.

The other key players in this story, are Wayne Collins, local school principal to Annie’s kids, and Jessica King, his young fiancé. When Jessica playfully asks Annie if she can tell whether or not her and Wayne will live happily ever after, Annie is paralyzed by a vision worse than divorce. A few days later, Jessica is missing. Her fiancé and father think it’s a good idea to ask Annie to help find her. She tries her best, but at first comes up with nothing. It isn’t long, though, before her gift becomes unwrapped in small flashes every now and then that seem to be pointing towards murder. The question is, once Annie finds Jessica, will she be able to find the killer? And better yet, how will she prove to the non-believer, the power of her gift?

It would be wrong to give away any more than this, as "The Gift" basically boils down to be a classic whodunit – but one of the most terrifying and engaging ones of recent memory. Written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, the script’s strengths are the menagerie of weird – and scary – characters and southern gothic spooks. Watching Annie interact with all these people gives us a tremendous feel for this small town and her role in it, which is not to be dismissed. It’s odd to think her normal every day life would be more interesting than the details of a murder mystery, but that’s what we have here. It’s just that Annie’s normal every day life has been made to be pretty special due to her gift.

This cast is terrific. Lead by Kate Blanchett whose true gift in this movie is being an absolutely believable southern American mom, every performer turns in some of their best performances to date. Particularly Ribisi, who although seems to play mentally challenged people far too often, is nonetheless gripping in his portrayal of Buddy. He’s almost a modern day Boo Radley here, but there are two scenes here where his performance is as frightening as anything I’ve ever seen. The young man is obviously very talented. Greg Kinnear also shines as Wayne, playing a character I haven’t seen him play before and handling it with ease. He also has the least annoying accent of anybody in this film. And then there’s Keanu, who like a few other actors seems to do better work when he’s allowed to take a couple of weeks off from shaving. His character is completely one-sided in this film (and at the risk of a tiny spoiler I have to ask, just what the crap happens to him anyway?) but he pulls it off with an appropriate menace and tenacity that makes the character hard not to forget. Also, in her big post-Oscar debut is Hillary Swank, who does a fine job with a character that is mostly wasted, yet somewhat essential to the story. Last but not least is director Sam Raimi, who proved his dramatic merits awhile back with the far superior "A Simple Plan," and again shows he’s more than capable of creating thrills around characters the audience cares about. The film looks great and has some extremely tense, well-crafted moments that in my mind are all about Raimi. It’s his skills and visual style that make this film a good bit better than perhaps it should be.

Presented in 1.85:1 <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>, Paramount Home Video has provided an excellent transfer here. Detail is very crisp and you’ll notice this the most probably in Annie’s own house. Take a moment to look at all the little details of the rooms, from the chipped paint early in the movie to the red cover-up applied by the kids later in the film. The sharpness is quite nice and the black level is right on the money. If there’s anything to disappoint here, it’s no doubt going to be the amount of grain you’ll find in some of the many night time scenes. While it’s never distracting and I have no doubt part of the source material, it simply catches your attention due to the clarity of the other scenes. Overall, a very fine transfer that will please fans of the film.

On the audio side, we have a standard <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 track here that is very suitable for this type of film. By that, I mean dialogue is dominant throughout and sounds good and absolutely distortion-free. Your other four speakers will get some play, however, in the numerous scenes where Annie’s gift presents itself. Personally, I really enjoy this technique of sound design. It’s quick and yes, somewhat jarring but that’s basically the point, to make you stand up and pay attention and sometimes spook the crap out of you. The quality of the score by Christopher Young is also excellent, sounding very full and enveloping.

Well, Paramount’s still unsuccessfully trying to get the hang of these crazy things called special features but they’ve done an okay job here with a film that certainly didn’t light the box office on fire. First and of key interest is a making-of featurette that runs about 10 minutes and is basically a collection of interviews with Raimi and the cast, all the while throwing in some on-set footage. Not something you’ll want to watch three or four times most likely, but it is fairly informative considering it’s short length. Also on board, is the music video for a song called "Furnace Room Lullaby," by Neko Case and her Boyfriends. It’s a decent video and a pretty cool song to boot. Last but not least is the theatrical trailer that quickly shows off the impressive cast.

"The Gift" is an impressive film that is filled with frights and thrills and stands out because of all that talent involved. Die-hard fans of the film and Mr. Raimi may be a tad disappointed by the lack of features included, but there’s little else in the disc to find fault in.