The Gift

on December 22, 2000 by Paul Clinton
   With "The Gift," Sam Raimi again transforms routine horror into a startling thriller set in the back woods of Georgia. Derided as the town "fortune teller," Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett) lays out the psychic cards for those who dare to visit her out-of-the-way shack. After advising a battered wife (Hilary Swank) to leave husband Donnie, Annie gets an unwelcome visit from the redneck (a surprisingly menacing Keanu Reeves), threatening to harm her if she doesn't mind her own business.

   When the easiest girl in town (Katie Holmes) winds up in Donnie's swamp, Annie--who has had a vision leading authorities to the place--begins unraveling the case in her mind's eye.

   The movie works best as a creepy whodunit, with a cast of Southern misfits all capable of the crime. Buddy (Giovanni Ribisi), a volatile mechanic who turns to Annie for comfort, is certainly at the top of the list. But he and Donnie--the one who stands trial for the killing--aren't the only ones with a motive.

   Raimi keeps us guessing, even as he treads familiar ground (a faucet dripping with blood, Annie cowering in her darkened hallway and a flashlight searching the woods at night). Raimi uses the arsenal of visual trickery he honed in his zombie trilogy, launched by "Evil Dead," to give the movie a tense, pregnant atmosphere.

   Disappearing into her down-home character, Blanchett again shows her astounding range as an actress. Not only does she nail the dialect, Blanchett manages to bring genuine feeling to an empathetic role.

   Ribisi, offering up an explosive performance, is also impressive. As with "A Simple Plan," Raimi brings out solid work from his entire cast.

   The screenplay, by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, lends authentic deep-South flavor to the brew.    Starring Cate Blanchett, Katie Holmes, Keanu Reeves, Giovanni Ribisi, Greg Kinnear and Hilary Swank. Directed by Sam Raimi. Written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson. Produced by James Jacks, Tim Rosenberg and Robert G. Tapert. A Paramount Classics release. Thriller. Rated R for violence, language and sexuality/nudity. Running time: 111 min.

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