There's been nothing wrong with the most recent films from Sam Raimi. But something's certainly been missing from the world of cinema since the director removed his horror cap in order to concentrate on heists gone wrong (A Simple Plan) and baseball (For Love of the Game). After all, Raimi is the man responsible for, among other things, the totally over the top, completely outrageous blend of chills and guffaws, Evil Dead II -- perhaps the best horror film ever made.
And the good news is that he's back in his realm, albeit without the goofy comic edge that most likely came from his adoration of the Three Stooges (to fully understand what I'm talking about, rent Evil Dead II and check out the scene in which Bruce Campbell helplessly, and hilariously, smashes dinner plates over his own head). But The Gift is something else -- a horror film of the psychological type.
It's the story of a contemporary young widow and mother, Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett, in Oscar nomination mode), in the American South who has the power -- the gift -- to read people's futures from her special deck of cards. And she's good at it, perhaps too good. One of the most wonderful parts in the film is the simple act of watching Blanchett, who's one of those chameleon actresses. Here she wears a weird but beautiful smile on her wide mouth and scrunches up her eyes, sometimes almost resembling Dianne Wiest in Hannah and Her Sisters.
When one of the townsfolk vanishes, murder is on everyone's minds. The local police don't have a clue (literally and figuratively), so as a last resort, Annie is called upon to work her wonders by a disgruntled and non-believing sheriff. J.K. Simmons, who played the chilling Vernon Schillinger on Oz, portrays the sheriff as a man whose passion for doughnuts is stronger than anything else in his life, including this case. That point is one of the few humorous moments the usually comic-minded Raimi lets slip through in the film.
But before the central story of the search for the missing person gets played out, the script (nicely crafted by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson) concentrates on a series of Annie's relationships with other folks in the small town. From her three kids, one of whom is needy, to the slow and troubled Buddy (Giovanni Ribisi), Annie's sphere also includes the frightened Valerie (Hilary Swank, in her first film since Boys Don't Cry) and Valerie's vicious, jealous, redneck husband (Keanu Reeves).
A moment, please, to mention something that's never been printed on these pages before. Perhaps we (all reviewers) have been wrong about Keanu all these years. To my recollection, he's never gotten much of a good rap -- yes, I'm guilty, too. He's been okay as good guys, he's been competent as confused guys and he's been just plain unconvincing as bad guys. But with this very convincing performance, one that makes everyone onscreen and hopefully everyone in theaters, squirm, perhaps it's time to cut him some slack and start over. Here he delivers, in very brief screen time, one of the best acting jobs of the year.
There's a good deal of off-screen brutality in the film, some of the aftereffects of which can be seen in the garish bruises on Swank's face. (It's only in a couple of scenes, but is there such thing as an award for best supporting make-up artist?)
There's a high content of that staple of horror films -- shockeroos -- some from loud and sudden noises, others from the abruptly scary visions that come zooming uncontrollably into Annie's head (a fascinating but underplayed story asks why she couldn't predict her husband's accidental death in time to save him). And there's a consistently nerve-wracking mood that makes itself at home right near the beginning and stays around right through to the unexpected climax.
The Gift demands and easily gets a lot of audience participation that goes well beyond some out-loud screams and tight gripping of the armrests. First, because there are so many people that could have committed what indeed does turn out to be a murder, yet there are no solid clues dropped in any one direction, it all becomes one big, communal guessing game. Second, it turns into one of those films in which you want to yell, "Don't go in there! Don't trust that guy!" But that part's not done in any kind of cheesy way. It's done with class and panache and creepiness and jitters. It's done in the inimitable style of Sam Raimi. Hey Sam -- welcome back to where you belong.