With “Spiderman 2” cementing his reputation as one of Hollywood’s elite, I thought now would be a good time to check out “The Gift”, one of “Evil Dead” director Sam Raimi’s early studio films. I must admit I had put off watching it for some time, fearing the worst. Though the “Spiderman” films are very entertaining and show an excellent commercialization of his technique and wild energy, his other early Hollywood efforts are deeply average at best. Sadly, “The Gift” is another of these, a film so weighed down by its own averageness that it sinks turgidly into the overly familiar and stinking swamps that its characters seem to enjoy hanging around.
“The Gift” is filmmaking at its most loathsome. Pointless, safe, and unambitious; a film off the Hollywood production line that makes no attempt to entertain or thrill the audience, but simply to dull the brain for two hours or so. Coming from a director like Raimi, this is not merely disappointing, but is an insult. I am not arguing that all films need to push the envelope, and I am well aware that originality is a rare commodity in the movie industry today. However, there simply is no excuse for the complete lack of effort on display here.
The plot of “The Gift”, from a script co-written by everybody’s favorite redneck, Billy Bob Thornton, concerns a psychic’s involvement in the disappearance of a young, promiscuous woman from a small town in the Deep South of America. The psychic in question is Annie, played by Cate Blanchett (“Heaven”), a woman whose life has been plagued by tragedy, and whose “gift” (irony alert) does not always make her popular with the locals.
Annie lives alone with her children, offering help to various people, such as advising beaten wife Valerie (Hillary Swank) how to deal with her abusive husband Donnie (Keanu Reeves). She is drawn into the investigation of the disappearance of Jessica (Katie Holmes) through one of her clients, facing cynicism and mistrust from many within the police department. As Annie’s visions draw her closer to the killer, it becomes clear that the price for discovering the truth may be her own life…
I’m sure that even to irregular watchers of film and television, this plot seems familiar and tired. As the story unfolds, I can guarantee that most viewers will have guessed the perpetrator long before the film’s halfway mark. Sadly, Raimi does little to alleviate the air of predictability, instead throwing in a few cheap scares to keep us from falling asleep. In fact, aside from a handful of directorial flourishes during the psychic vision sequences, “The Gift” could have come from any number of faceless Hollywood automatons. It is a sad day when a director who has previously and since shown such dynamism is guilty of underwhelming blandness.
There are simply very few thrills to be had in “The Gift”. Even non-genre fans will find little to frighten them, and I seriously doubt that anyone would feel their heart miss a beat at any point during this limp affair. The film is obviously going for the standard “slow burning”, creepy atmosphere; in other words, throw in a few canisters of dry ice and some would-be ominous symbolism.
“The Gift” even stoops to using that tired, familiar device of modern cinema: tricking the audience into caring for a character simply by throwing something tragic into their life. Hillary Swank’s Valerie is an excellent case in point; woefully underwritten and utterly two-dimensional, the viewer is expected to sympathize with her through repeated and aggressive re-emphasis that she has an unpleasant life. This comes off as nothing more than a cheap attempt at generating empathy, and falls quite flat.
To be fair, the acting in the film is generally quite good, and all concerned make what they can from the uninspired material. Katie Holmes and Keanu Reeves (“The Matrix”) vaguely impress, playing against type as a slut and a wife beater, respectively. Is it enough to save the film? No. Not even close.
So there you have it. “The Gift” is a film that any film fan should make a point of not watching. It is dull, unimaginative stuff that is horribly indicative of the state of the Hollywood studio system. This film is a number, a statistic, whose only purpose is to act as a safe bet, which will go largely unnoticed whilst helping to level out the studio’s average box office gross. Films like this are evil, made without any concern for entertaining or thrilling the paying audience.
Sam Raimi (director) / Billy Bob Thornton, Tom Epperson (screenplay)
CAST: Cate Blanchett …. Annabelle ‘Annie’ Wilson
Giovanni Ribisi …. Buddy Cole
Keanu Reeves …. Donnie Barksdale
Katie Holmes …. Jessica King
Greg Kinnear …. Wayne Collins
Hilary Swank …. Valerie Barksdale