The Gift (2000)
Written by Billy Bob Thornton & Tom Epperson
Directed by Sam Raimi
I noticed that, without planning, every Flashback to a year I’ve done in 2020 has included a Sam Raimi picture. There had been no desire to do a look at his work specifically, but through these series, I’ve had the opportunity to see how he grew as a director over the years. The Gift is the most jarring of these films because it’s so unlike anything else I’ve seen from him. It’s a much more muted picture and feels like an independent film from the late 1990s/early 2000s. It seemed like he was becoming more over the top and stylistic with pictures like Darkman and The Quick and The Dead, but here everything is so sedate with mild touches of Raimi’s aesthetic.
Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett) is a widow living in a small Georgia town who makes ends meet with her late husband’s social security and a side gig as a clairvoyant fortune-teller. Her readings for Valerie (Hilary Swank) lead her husband, Donnie (Keanu Reeves), to become irate with Annie and threaten her life if she keeps putting what he sees as evil thoughts in his wife’s head. Annie is also becoming close with her eldest son’s principal, Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear), engaged to a wealthy local socialite, Jessica (Katie Holmes). Things turn tragic when Jessica goes missing, and Annie has visions that the woman has been killed and tracks her down to a specific location outside of town. Annie realizes that, while the law believes the killer’s identity is apparent, things are much more complicated than she first thought.
Raimi definitely leans into many Southern-fried cliches, and his actors don’t necessarily capture the accent’s essence. The cliches are pretty abundant with swamps, weeping willows, the class divide between the wealthy and poor, and even a To Kill a Mockingbird-esque trial with Annie’s son secretly watching from the balcony. Raimi is pulling back with only some uses of his tropes. There’s a scene early on where Annie has a vision while in the principal’s office, and a supernatural wind blows her hair while the camera pushes in, and you can see just a little touch of the director’s aesthetic there. Otherwise, I see this falling more in the camp of pictures like Sling Blade and The Apostle. It plays things pretty low key.
Cate Blanchett does the best job of things and plays Annie with total believability, which helps ground the sometimes silly proceedings. You can see how this role could very easily be hammed up by a lesser actor, someone who overplays into farce. Her abilities are represented through short quick visions, a pencil rolling off a desk, falling into a puddle of water, which reveals a character’s corpse-like foot, hinting at their fate. Blanchett finds ways to play Annie as vulnerable but can pull herself up when circumstances become dangerous to her and her family.
There is a lot of plot here, and not all the arcs feel like they belong together initially. By the end of the film, characters’ stories begin to flow together so that the finale is incredibly satisfying and provides a reason for every person’s presence in the narrative. Surprisingly, this film didn’t do well at the box office because it had the star power to get people’s attention and deliver a very well-plotted mystery story with classy special effects. I wouldn’t say I hope Raimi makes more films like this one, as I love it when he goes insane (see Darkman), but it is a pleasant surprise in his filmography. The Gift appears to have become one of those overlooked gems that people will hopefully rediscover from time to time.