A paranormal thriller set in a small, simple town, The Gift focuses on the exploits of Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett), a single mother of three who has a knack for picking up psychic impressions of past and turure events. To help support her family, she performs psychic readings for the locals, including an abused woman (Hilary Swank) who won't leave her violent husband (Keanu Reeves) and a young man with severe emotional problems (Giovanni Ribisi). Things take a dark turn when Jessica King (Katie Holmes), the insatiable town flirt, goes missing. At a dead end in their investigation, the authorities reluctantly consult Annie for any other-worldly guidance she can offer. Haunted by nightmares of a dead Jessica, Annie's interpretations eventually uncover the body and point the finger at Keanu Reeves' character as the killer.
If some of these elements sound familiar, it's because The Gift is largely a collection of every horror movie cliche involving supernatural visions. Throw in a good dose of cliches from the murder mystery genre, and you've got one of the year's most utterly predictable and unsurprising movies. Sadly, I successfully predicted the outcome and identity of the killer only half way through the movie. This is doubly disappointed because the cast is quite a strong ensemble, and it feels like they were simply wasted on a cheesy Stir of Echoes type story.
Had this movie been put together ten or fifteen years ago, it's likely we would have been impressed with Annie's psychic visions and the plot twists. But having been desensitized by movies like The Sixth Sense and Scream, it's easily to be completely underwhelmed by what is meant to be shocking and surprising in The Gift. Exceedingly predictable and typical is the hokey guardian angel twist at the end of the movie. When Cate Blanchett is recapping her final confrontation with the killer to the sheriff, she swears that one of the town's citizens helped her through it. But the sheriff keeps insisting, "Ma'am, that's not possible." He denies it so many times that you can just feel the revelation coming: YEP, that person couldn't have been at the scene, because that person committed suicide earlier that day. You can almost hear the groans from the audience...
The Gift also employs a host of tired cliches for the small things: sudden shocks and loud music after periods of silence, dripping water turning into blood, and corpses suddenly opening their eyes and talking. Also strikingly cheesy is a scene in which Blanchett is unloading groceries from the back of her car: the car's trunk is opened, and fills half the screen. When she unloads the last of her bags, she closes the trunk, and surprise surprise: someone is standing there! This single shot is not significant in and of itself, but it embodies the non-stop predictability of this movie. The cliches finally culminate in an unremarkable ending where all the loose ends are tied up in an instant, right down to the killer making an off-screen confession to all his wrongdoings. As the Church Lady would say, "Well...isn't that convenient?"
All of these things having been said, The Gift isn't a complete waste. The cast, for the most part, turns in believable performances in spite of the supernatural subject matter; the characters are well developed; and some of the subplots are disturbing thanks to their realism. For example, Giovanni Ribisi plays a local mechanic with severe mental problems stemming from childhood abuse. Throughout the movie, he babbles about a blue diamond, and when the significance of that is finally revealed, it's particularly sick and disturbing. A scene in which he vengefully attacks his parents is the single most gripping thing about the entire movie. Ribisi is truly establishing himself as one of the most compelling actors of his generation.
Perhaps the most shocking thing about The Gift is that Keanu Reeves actually turns out to be one of the best actors in the cast. If you told me I would be fearful of Ted "Theodore" Logan before I saw this movie, I would have said you were insane. But as a redneck wifebeater with a short temper, Reeves is surprisingly menacing and despicable. He still can't say "I know kung fu" worth a damn, but at least his role in his movie supports the idea that maybe he's a better actor than most people give him credit for.
Doing a good deal to add credibility to the movie, Cate Blanchett plays Annie Wilson as an ordinary person with an extraordinary power. Her humility, coupled with the fact that she is a caring mother first and a psychic second, makes her both sympathetic and real to us. Her reluctance to exploit her gift is also a nice touch, and she never comes across like those psycho frauds that advertise on television.
Finally, this movie boasts perhaps the greatest treat for all the Katie Homles fans out there: the quintessential girl-next-door of Dawson's Creek not only goes absolutely nympho as the town's supreme slut, but also gets topless. Bare movie breasts might not be as rare as the Loch Ness monster, but when you consider that Homles always seemed like the wholesome actress who would never get naked for the camera, this is as big a shock as the half-decent Keanu Reeves performance. All I can say is that yes, she definitely has youth on her side. Hoo-wah. (As a side commentary, I'd like to point out that Blanchett would have had to take it off, too, had this movie been made in the '80s.)
Rating: 7 out of 10 (0=Abysmal, 5=Average, 10=Excellent)