The Gift
Director: Sam Raimi. Cast: Cate Blanchett, Keanu Reeves, Greg Kinnear, Giovanni Ribisi, Hilary Swank, Katie Holmes, Gary Cole, Michael Jeter, Rosemary Harris, Chelcie Ross. Screenplay: Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson.

One of Hollywood's worst developments toward the end of the 1990s was the emergence of Sam Raimi, director of "mainstream" dramas and thrillers. Actually, it isn't mainstream but the words "drama" and "thriller" that should be in quotes, since the soggy, sorry baseball fable For Love of the Game was unendurable even when watched sans headphones on an airplane (trust me), and the stupendously overrated A Simple Plan contained, outside of Danny Elfman's superlative score, only one genuine fright: the spectacle of Bridget Fonda and Billy Bob Thornton taking an absurd, transparent script with truly alarming, ready-for-my-closeup seriousness.

The Gift, starring Cate Blanchett as a backwoods Georgia psychic enlisted in a kidnapping-murder investigation, sounds like a welcome opportunity for the return of Sam Raimi, director of gleeful, gruesome kitsch like the Evil Dead trilogy, with which he made his name. However, armed with a cast he could never have enlisted without his Hollywood forays—not just Blanchett, but Keanu Reeves, Greg Kinnear, Giovanni Ribisi, Katie Holmes, and reigning Oscar winner Hilary Swank—Raimi does the unthinkable, which is to say, from the viewer's perspective, the intolerable. Rather than combine the virtues of his radically bifurcated body of work, he unites the worst qualities of both: the indifferent acting of the early movies and the mind-blowing self-seriousness of his popcorn fare. What all this means is that The Gift is almost surely the worst movie Sam Raimi has made, not to mention a dismal vehicle for Blanchett, whose spectral beauty and stunning ability to transform herself matter very little when the movie as a whole is as stilted, obvious, and cruel as this one.

What we have here is a mystery in which Blanchett, whose abilities everyone but the audience is inclined to doubt, has to figure out which of four or five potential suspects mutilated Holmes' body and dumped her in a pond. That Raimi dwells so repeatedly on the desecrated corpse of the victim, as well as on several scenes of spousal abuse and pugilistic violence (mostly against women), demonstrates much of what is wrong with the picture. No longer an absurdist of gore, Raimi is now a reveler in it, and there's a good deal more of it here than in A Simple Plan. Though in theory the violence and threats thereof in The Gift are meant to elicit our sympathies—albeit to varying degrees—for Blanchett, Swank, and Holmes, the film takes obvious, protracted pleasure in the spectacle of their suffering, rushing to entice an increasingly bored audience with the jolting sights of a nude woman being clubbed, or a body burned alive.

And why, you ask, do so many characters resort to such violence, particularly Reeves' bruiser husband and Ribisi's temper-disordered mechanic (a part even cruder than, but otherwise identical to, Thornton's psychotic simpleton in A Simple Plan)? Because the "mystery," as scripted by Thornton himself and Tom Epperson, is so banal and instantly solvable that the film's "shocking" violence is its only tactic for pretending there is anything shocking about its story. In fact, Blanchett's psychic powers are a wholly unnecessary (and, at that, inconsistently portrayed) element in a film whose riddles anyone could solve through quick common sense. As a result, characters who could not possibly be guilty of the crime increasingly perform gruesome acts and abrupt tantrums to sustain the desperate fallacy that there's an element of uncertainty in this film.

Given such a deplorable structure, which must set some kind of record for combining laziness with sadism, The Gift was sunk like a stone before the actors even showed up for work. In fact, some of them seem not to have showed up at all—Ribisi, already playing the umpteenth version of mental disability in a very young career, and Swank and Holmes, scoring the year's most thankless roles outside of The Legend of Bagger Vance, act so pallidly that they seem never to have decided for sure whether to appear in the film.

Which leaves poor Blanchett, maybe the best actress in Hollywood of the younger-than-Meryl generation, moored among all that kudzu, cheap linen, and supernatural hokum. Hers, as expected, is a very dedicated performance, her face and body so haunted as she speaks and moves that she almost manages to connect The Gift to the known human universe. And yet, I find it hard to praise the commitment of her work without wondering who would commit to such an ugly, inert script, and why? Is it fair to blame an actress, no matter how well she's doing her job, for the decision to work with filmmakers so beneath her in terms of both craft and compassion? Meryl Streep appeared in a laughable noir in 1982 called Still of the Night which no one, twenty years and nine more Oscar nominations later, seems to remember. Blanchett can only hope that no one, whether endowed with ESP or not, will recall this putrid hash when looking back on the brilliant career she can still have if she avoids more choices like this one. D–

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