The Gift [DVD]
Screenplay : Billy Bob Thornton & Tom Epperson
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2000
Stars : Cate Blanchett (Annie Wilson), Giovanni Ribisi (Buddy Cole), Keanu Reeves (Donnie Barksdale), Katie Holmes (Jessica King), Greg Kinnear (Wayne Collins), Hilary Swank (Valerie Barksdale), Michael Jeter (Gerald Weems), J.K. Simmons (Sheriff Johnson)
The Gift is a gripping genre concoction stirred together out of equal parts suspense-thriller, horror film, ghost story, and rural small-town melodrama. This Southern Gothic mix was brewed by writers Billy Bob Thorton and Tom Epperson, whose previous work together includes A Family Thing (1995) and One False Move (1991), and brought to a boil by director Sam Raimi, whose skill at generating suspense while also creating memorable human characters continues to impress. After the artistic triumph of A Simple Plan (1998), his best film to date, Raimi wandered into left field with the Kevin Costner romantic sports drama For the Love of the Game (1999), but has now moved back into the territory he knows best.
The story takes place in a small town in the backwaters of Georgia, perched on the edge of seemingly endless cypress swamps (it gives the illusion that the town is isolated on its own island). Cate Blanchett stars as Annie Wilson, a recent widow with three children who survives on Social Security checks and small donations for psychic readings she offers to the local townsfolk. Annie's grandmother once told she had a gift, and Annie uses her extrasensory perception to offer advice and comfort to the desperate people in town who come to see her because help is not available anywhere else.
Her clients include Buddy Cole (Giovanni Ribisi), an emotionally scarred young mechanic given to sudden violent outbursts. Another is Valerie Barksdale (Hilary Swank), a sad victim of severe spousal abuse who, despite Annie's constant advice, refuses to leave her husband, a vicious redneck named Donnie (Keanu Reeves), out of fear that he will kill her. Annie assures Valerie that Donnie is mean, but he's no killer, which are words that she will live to regret having uttered.
The story revolves around the disappearance of Jessica King (Katie Holmes), the daughter of one of the richest men in town and the fiancee of the local school principal, Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear). Out of desperation, the police come to Annie hoping that she might be able to help them locate Jessica. After a few false starts, Annie has several premonitions and a startling dream that lead the police to a large pond on Donnie Barksdale's property where Jessica's strangled body is found.
This leads to a sensational trial in which Annie and her claims of extrasensory perception become a major factor in whether or not Donnie will be convicted. The fact that Annie and Donnie had an antagonistic relationship--Donnie had threatened her on a number of occasions for her having advised Valerie to leave him--does not help matters, either. Of course, the trial and Donnie's fate are just two of the pieces in a much larger puzzle in which not everything is as simple as it first appears and sudden revelations lurk around every corner.
The core of The Gift is really not much more than a barely restrained potboiler, but it is done with such skill and conviction that it draws you in regardless. Over the years, Sam Raimi has developed into a formidable talent; his obvious ability to shock and exhilarate with his comically gory Evil Dead films has morphed into a more subtle and complex skill at generating tension and pulling you into the characters' lives. He still has a few old tricks up his sleeve--The Gift is punctuated from time to time with shock moments and horrific flashes, including a few brief scenes in which Katie Holmes is turned into an animated corpse that might feel at home in The Evil Dead.
Still, like A Simple Plan, it is ultimately the human drama that keeps you watching. While not on the same level as that film, Raimi endows The Gift with a similar kind of humanism that elevates the project above its generic roots. This, of course, relies heavily on the performances, and everyone involved comes through.
Cate Blanchett, who continues to show an impeccable, chameleon-like ability to inhabit every role she plays, makes a solid, sympathetic center for the story, as she suggests Annie's vulnerability as a widowed mother of three threatened from numerous directions while still maintaining the character's essential strength and willpower. Giovanni Ribisi is also impressive as Buddy, and his hollowed eyes and long face are perfectly sculpted to suggest the lost look of a man who is still an abused boy inside. Keanu Reeves, sporting a scraggly beard and dingy baseball cap, is appropriately menacing and vile as Donnie, and Greg Kinnear sheds the callous flippancy of his recent roles in Loser and Nurse Betty to create a likable man who is also a believable victim.
As the frozen world of northern Minnesota served so well in A Simple Plan to represent the coldness of the human heart, Raimi and cinematographer Jamie Anderson use the dank, swampy locations of southern Georgia to suggest a literal incarnation of the moral and spiritual morass through which the film's characters are constantly dragging themselves. The narrative tension in The Gift is escalated by the fact that Thornton and Epperson set it against a realistic backdrop of familial violence, both spousal and child abuse. The patterns of violence that haunt several of the characters' lives are hard to forget, and they are carefully and effectively interwoven with the more sensationalistic aspects of the story. The result is an absorbing mystery that is as memorable for its human angle as it is for its intricate plotting and surprise revelations.
|The Gift DVD|
|Audio|| Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround |
Dolby 2.0 Surround
|Languages||English (5.1, 2.0), French (2.0)|
|Supplements|| The Gift: A Look Inside 11-minute featurette|
Original theatrical trailer
Music video "Furnace Room Lullaby" by Neko Case & Her Brothers
|The anamorphic widescreen (1.85:1) image on this disc is stunning. Crisp, clear, and finely detailed, it brings out all the nuances of the Southern backwater swamps that set the movie's tone. Lighting--which is sometimes naturalistic but often highly stylized--is particularly good, with strong contrast and deep, inky blacks that also feature excellent shadow detail. Grain is kept to a bare minimum except for one odd shot that sticks out like a sore thumb in Chapter 43: It is a shot-reverse shot conversation between Cate Blanchett and Giovanni Ribisi, and for some reason the shots of Ribisi are clear and sharp while the shots of Blanchett are noticeably grainier than any other shot in the movie. Oh well--it's a minor thing in an otherwise excellent transfer.|
|The Dolby Digital 5.1 surround soundtrack is incredibly effective, creating and sustaining an aural mood of intense tension and dread throughout. The opening credits sequences is a great example, with the enveloping sounds of the swamp that is startlingly punctuated with a deep, heavy roll of crackling thunder than reverberates from front to rear in an excellent use of naturalistic imaging, eventually giving way to a foreboding piano score. The soundtrack is at its best in the details--the wind whistling through cypress trees, chirping crickets, the sound of water dripping--although it really grabs you with effective "boo" moments that are heavily reliant on the clarity of the soundtrack (listen closely to the skin-crawling aural details of Katie Holmes' horrific voice when Blanchett discovers her sitting in the bathtub in Chapter 36).|
| The supplements are a bit disappointing, as I had been hoping for an audio commentary from director Sam Raimi, something that was also missing from Paramount's DVD of A Simple Plan. The disc does offer The Gift: A Look Inside, an 11-minute featurette that contains brief interviews with Raimi, Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, Keanu Reeves, Katie Holmes, Greg Kinnear, and Hilary Swank (too bad screenwriters Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson couldn't have been corralled to give their take on the movie--I'd be much more interested to hear what they have to say about the characters than Katie Holmes). It's basically run-of-the-mill promotional stuff, without much real insight into the production. |
Other supplements include the original theatrical trailer presented in nonanamorphic widescreen and the music video for "Furnace Room Lullaby" by Neko Case & Her Brother.