Lost in the Swamp

Sam Raimi does what he can with familiar material in The Gift

This is some damn fine coffee you got here in Twin Peaks. And some damn good cherry pie. But I have to tell you something, sheriff: Last night, I had a dream in which a dancing midget talked backward, thus leading me to believe that our killer is a man with long hair ..."

Sorry, wrong movie. But the confusion is understandable. Once you've seen one deranged auteur's vision of a small town in which a dead local slut is found in the water and the police try to use psychic powers to find the killer, it's hard to tell the others apart. Sam Raimi's The Gift is a great deal shorter than Twin Peaks, and also less whimsical. To say it's less original is a no-brainer: In addition to evoking David Lynch, one gets the distinct feeling, call it a sixth sense, that there's an unbreakable resemblance to the work of another director of creepy movies, from the myriad psychic premonitions -- and visions of dead people -- to a surprise twist that makes up part of the ending. Similarities to Unbreakable are probably an unfortunate coincidence, although a case could be made that both movies draw strongly on David Cronenberg's The Dead Zone.

Although it's good to see Raimi returning to the field of scary movies after his forgettable Kevin Costner baseball effort (For Love of the Game) last year, it's a shame he chose a project so predictable. The man whose breakthrough movie, The Evil Dead, was subtitled "the ultimate experience in grueling horror" now resorts to the cheapest scare tactic in the book: lowering the soundtrack volume to almost nothing, then jolting a really loud noise out of nowhere, even though it may not correspond to anything onscreen.

Cate Blanchett in The Gift, a derivative but undeniably effective shocker from Sam Raimi.
Cate Blanchett in The Gift, a derivative but undeniably effective shocker from Sam Raimi.

Details

Opens Jan. 19 at multiple theaters.

The bottom line, however, is that cheap and unoriginal as The Gift may be, it sucks you in. As a mainstream Hollywood film, it would be moderately impressive; only because it's a Raimi film that hopes to qualify for an Oscar do we expect more than two hours of unmotivated shocks. Those viewers simply looking for a date movie should look no further -- if you have a timid girlfriend, she'll be jumping into your arms by the end. Those looking for Evil Dead IV, or even A Simple Plan II, keep looking.

The setting for The Gift is the sleepy Georgia town of Brixton, conveniently located next to a really creepy swamp. Most of the townspeople look like movie stars and have generic, non-region-specific Southern accents. It's the kind of town where squirrel hunting is a popular pastime and cops argue about whether or not there was an "e-clair" in the box of doughnuts just a few minutes ago. The "gift" in question is the unpredictable psychic power possessed by Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett), a power that generally induces violent visions and nightmares whenever something bad is about to happen (given that Raimi's next film will be about a well-known arachnid superhero, it's tempting to call this ability a "spider-sense").

Annie's been a widow ever since she failed to convince her husband that a psychic warning was for real. She is raising her three kids on welfare checks and the occasional psychic reading she does for local townsfolk, among them Valerie Barksdale (Hilary Swank), a local woman who regularly bears new signs of abuse from her vicious redneck husband, Donnie (Keanu Reeves, looking awake for once). Annie may be psychic, but her plain old intuition isn't so great: It never occurs to her that telling Valerie to leave her husband may bring about dangerous repercussions. Nor does she see how much she's shutting her eldest son out of her life, despite attempts at caring intervention from his nice-guy teacher Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear).

Some visions of horror later, Wayne's gorgeous and half-his-age fiancée, Jessica King (Katie Holmes), turns up dead in a lake, and the question becomes "whodunit?" Because Donnie is homicidal and threatens everyone he encounters, he makes for far too obvious a choice. Could it have been Valerie? Wayne? The schizophrenic mechanic (Giovanni Ribisi, outshining all other actors herein) who considers Annie his only friend? Raimi regular Gary Cole, playing yet another menacing authority figure? Jessica's rich dad? Donnie's corrupt local-cop buddy?

Sad to say, the answer will probably be obvious to discerning audience members early on, despite a couple of red herrings thrown the viewer's way. Nonetheless, it's a superficially entertaining enough story to keep you watching, with some occasional scenes of disturbing power, including one in which a man is tied to a chair and burned alive. Blanchett and Ribisi are the standouts in the cast, with Reeves doing OK (he'll never pass for Southern, but at least he's suitably menacing) and Kinnear and Holmes faring less well, though the latter does show her breasts, which is perhaps all her fans want to see anyhow. Swank, in her first post-Oscar-winning role, is adequate white trash -- and, ironically, the type of character who would have rooted for Brandon Teena's death. It's a shame about the script, written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson; one wishes Raimi would go back to writing his own material. He does his best to goose the audience, but the story's just too run-of-the-mill.

 
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