Billy Bob Thornton, who co-wrote this screenplay with Tom Epperson, was aiming for a Southern gothic horror thriller. But don’t make the mistake of expecting much just because Thornton has a Sling Blade to his credit. His latest film is just badly done. The Gift is one of those irrelevant films that exists for the sake of a few minor shocks. Thornton has fallen prey to the predictable cliches of Hollywood horror films.
Director Sam Raimi doesn’t do anything to help take this film beyond the ordinary either. He throws in a few swampy cypress ponds and streets lined with Spanish moss-covered oaks so we’ll know this is the heart of the South, where rednecks reign and all the townsfolk are mighty messed up, save the tremulous town psychic. Played by Cate Blanchett, the goodhearted Miss Wilson is a widow trying to raise three sons on her social security checks and whatever her “appointments” feel like giving her after she does a reading. She has the “gift,” but even she is keenly aware that extrasensory perception is more a curse than a gift. “Do you think I like seeing corpses wrapped in chains and men set on fire?” she cries when her special powers come under cruel attack. She also must contend with yahoos who think she can tell the future on cue, including a friend who commands, “Read my cards and tell me if that man who looks like Antonio Banderas is going to come over here.” No one understands her or her unique gift. They want quick tricks, not insight.
In the twisted town of Brixton, she sees far more than she wants to. Her sight includes the town secrets she literally sees, as well as those she senses and dreams. While she sees others clearly, she has trouble seeing into her own heart. She tells a troubled mechanic (Giovanni Ribisi) that he has to think about what his father took from him as a child and figure out why he hates him so much, which only enrages him. “You tell me why I hate him, you’re the goddamn psychic!” She tells a battered wife (Hilary Swank) that she has to think about leaving Donny, the brute (Keanu Reeves) who constantly uses her as punching bag. But, Miss Wilson can’t—or won’t—see that she herself has never grieved for the husband she lost in an industrial accident, nor has she allowed her sons to grieve. When the school’s principal (Greg Kinnear) suggests she get the boys into therapy, she tells him her son can talk to her and doesn’t need a psychologist. She’s so busy trying to straighten out strangers that she can’t see how needy her own children are. That’s the most interesting story angle here, but unfortunately it gets short shrift.
Blanchett is a gifted actress, and her performance is the film’s one saving grace. She alone creates a believable character with more emotional depth than all the other characters combined. But Blanchett’s performance isn’t enough to save a film peopled with two-dimensional stereotypes.
Swank doesn’t have much to do as the battered wife, except topple around on high heels, beg for readings and plead that she can’t leave her brutal husband. Like Miss Wilson’s other clients, the bruised wife wallows in her own neediness and refuses to heed kindly advice. Donny is a volatile redneck clearly in need of a little anger management. When he finds out Miss Wilson has suggested his wife would be safer leaving him, he explodes. He threatens the mild-mannered psychic and her children, accuses her of practicing witchcraft, voodoo and serving Satan, and gleefully terrorizes her. When he and his friends are lined up on a bench during a trial, they look like extras out of Deliverance, or worse, Hee-Haw. It’s hard to take any of them seriously.
Giovanni Ribisi is frighteningly demented as the mechanic with anger issues of his own. He clings to Miss Wilson’s kindness and would do anything to protect her, but he goes a little berserk himself in a nasty scene where he tries to make his father atone for past sins. These people don’t need psychics. They need therapy.
The film’s central—though least interesting—plot is a murder. The principal is engaged to a promiscuous socialite whose sordid circle of clandestine encounters includes both the district attorney and rough-boy Donny. The socialite is missing, the police seek the help of Miss Wilson, and after several horrifying dreams she leads them to the body.
Yes, the vile Donny has a mean habit of beating women, so it’s obvious he’ll be accused of the murder, but it’s equally obvious that he’s not the culprit. So, there are only three possibilities for suspects. There’s no more mystery here than in a board game of Clue. What is so transparent to the audience escapes the radar screen of the psychic until it is almost too late. She knows her life is in danger, but true to horror formula she does stupid things. In fact, 10 minutes into this film you’ll be wondering why Miss Wilson doesn’t just leave this creepy town and its troubled occupants who greedily suckle her gift and care nothing about her or her own troubles. They’re billed in the press materials as “colorful,” but the truth is they’re just annoying.
When the grieving principal cries to Miss Wilson, “It’s not over!” he’s echoing my sentiments about a film that feels too long at only 90 minutes. I can see how, handled with more delicacy, The Gift could make an interesting short story, but its screen treatment makes it just another B-grade horror film distinguished only by a cast of former Oscar winners and nominees who fail to elevate it to anything more than what it is: a gift not worth keeping.
The Gift (R) HH Directed by Sam Raimi. Starring Cate Blanchett, Hilary Swank and Keanu Reeves.