“The Gift” is a good, old-fashioned suspenser about a woman whose psychic powers get her involved in a murder case in the modern Gothic South. Putting his faith in a sturdy script and a fine cast led by the ever-remarkable Cate Blanchett, director Sam Raimi eschews trendy, over-emphatic effects in favor of a straightforward approach that makes for a solid tale well told. An effective sell of the melodramatic elements and diverse roster of actors should spur reasonable returns for Paramount Classics, although lack of sensationalism and heavy scares will no doubt prevent it from crossing over to thrill-seeking teens.
Written a number of years ago, the script by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson isn’t as pungent as the one they penned for “One False Move,” nor is the film as distinctive as Raimi’s most recent crime drama, “A Simple Plan.” But it’s an absorbing yarn all the same, and one with a basis in credible human issues that makes it engaging even if one has a predisposition against stories involving clairvoyance, ESP and the like.
Since her husband died in a workplace explosion a year earlier, Annie Wilson (Blanchett) has helped support her three boys by doing psychic readings with cards and dispensing considered advice to townsfolk in her working-class community. Still struggling emotionally as well as financially, Annie runs into trouble when, after telling battered wife Valerie Barksdale (Hilary Swank) to get help, Valerie’s violent redneck husband, Donnie (Keanu Reeves), warns Annie to mind her own business.
A rare social outing throws Annie into the orbit of well-mannered school principal Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear) and his hot little fiancee, Jessica King (Katie Holmes), whom Annie happens to catch having a ladies’ room quickie with another man. Also in her circle is a mentally disturbed auto mechanic, Buddy Cole (Giovanni Ribisi), who has endured a lifetime of abuse and craves Annie’s motherly support.
Just as Donnie’s threats assume truly menacing dimensions, Jessica goes missing, and the stumped cops are ultimately forced to ask Annie to apply her “hocus pocus” skills to the case. When Annie leads them to the pond on Donnie’s land and Jessica’s body is dredged up, all suspicions fall upon the local bad boy, who’s put on trial for murder.
During the proceedings, the defense attorney (Michael Jeter) mercilessly attacks Annie’s intuitive methods; already unsettled, she conducts yet another reading for Valerie that yields further startling revelations and a couple more nice twists leading to a nocturnal climax in — where else? — a swamp.
Within this well-carpentered, if unremarkable, framework, a great deal of attention has been paid to the emotional lives of nearly everyone with lines to say. To begin with, Annie’s telepathic powers are not invested with eerie dimensions in a cheap genre way, but are presented merely as a trait inherited from her grandmother; accordingly, Annie assumes a tentative and modest attitude toward them, as she might regard an amateur talent for playing piano or baking rhubarb pie.
Also helping to downplay standard-issue psychic/horror elements is Annie’s realistically presented emotional life. Still troubled by a possibly premonitory dream she had the night before her husband died, Annie is keenly aware of how much her sons miss their dad, and one of them observantly points out about her professional sideline, “It seems like you have time for a lot of strangers.”
But the genuine neediness of people like Valerie and Buddy demands Annie’s attention. She’s a character of complexity and multiple emotional investments that Blanchett enhances with an impeccably subtle and nuanced performance, further proof of her extraordinary range.
Some surprising casting in the supporting roles pays off handsomely, particularly in the case of Reeves, who is terrifically effective as a mean and sexy predator who could be kin to “Cape Fear’s” Max Cady. Last year’s best actress Oscar winner, Swank registers vividly in her few scenes as the battered wife who just can’t leave her louse of a husband; Ribisi poignantly plays a kid whose father has never let him feel more worthy than a worm; Holmes is dead-on as the naughty girl who’s notched every guy in town; and Kinnear is adroitly opaque as the upright citizen whose romantic interests quietly shift from Jessica to Annie.
Production values are modest and stylistic elements are subdued, although Savannah, Ga.-area-shot pic does a good job of blending New South locations with traditional atmospherics involving spooky shadows, moss and so on.