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— Casper Van Dien, Starship Troopers

MRQE Top Critic

Muscle Shoals

Even if the Muscle Shoals sound isn't on your iPod, you'll like seeing where it came from —Marty Mapes (review...)

Etta sings in Muscle Shoals

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Sam Raimi is back to his usual self after getting the sentimental For Love of the Game out of his system. For those unfamiliar, Raimi made his name with stylish horror movies (Evil Dead 2), and he matured into a director of creepy thrillers (A Simple Plan). The Gift most closely resembles A Simple Plan, but the comparison is unfortunate, because it makes The Gift seem like so much less.

Raimi brings together a great cast and crew. Written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, The Gift stars Cate Blanchett as a psychic reader in a small southern town. Portraying her customers are Hillary Swank and Giovanni Ribisi, and Keanu Reeves stars as a wife-beating bigot. Not a bad list of names for a movie with a reputedly small budget of $10 million.

Annie vs. Donnie

Keanu Reeves threatens in The GiftAnnie (Blanchett) gives advice and assistance along with her psychic readings. She is the town’s psychiatrist and triage nurse for those too poor to afford professional help. She is part Sigmund Freud, part Ann Landers, and part Florence Nightingale. For example, Buddy (Ribisi) is taking antipsychotic meds, and Annie helps him stay on his regimen. Valerie (Swank) is repeatedly beaten by her husband, and Annie encourages her to get a lawyer and file for divorce.

Annie is hounded by Valerie’s abusive husband Donnie (Reeves). He accuses her of witchcraft, makes implied threats against her children, and tells her never to talk to Valerie again. One night she realizes her house has been broken into, probably by Donnie. Later, her guess is confirmed when Donnie makes a threatening phone call.

But her concerns about Donnie are temporarily forgotten when a local woman goes missing. Katie, the school principal’s fiancé, has disappeared. The police have exhausted their leads, and they ask Annie if she could offer any supernatural insight into the crime (not that they believe in that sort of thing). Annie deals her cards, and initially she doesn’t see anything at all. But that night she has a vision about Katie’s body. She sees it floating in a pond on Donnie’s property.

Relatively Speaking

The Gift compares well to last summer’s What Lies Beneath. Both are supernatural thrillers, both are marketed as spine-tinglers, but the difference is that The Gift actually works. Raimi knows what scares people. Take Giovanni Ribisi’s character for example. His psychological instability is terrifying, not because you fear he might hurt someone, but because you don’t know what he might do. When he finally does something terrible it’s horrifying not because of what he’s doing, but rather his state of mind while he does it. What Lies Beneath, by comparison, feels like it’s been badly translated, like the words are all there, but the rhythm, the subtext, and the emotional power are gone.

Also, the casting is more interesting in The Gift. Michelle Pfeiffer and Harrison Ford are good at what they do, but they don’t have the youthful, edgy energy of Ribisi’s headcase or Reeves’ redneck. And Blanchett really proves her range in a surprisingly demanding role. Pfeiffer’s and Ford’s talent was just wasted in What Lies Beneath.

But to say The Gift is good compared to What Lies Beneath isn’t saying much, and in fact The Gift has some problems of its own. Compare it to the doomed, gut-wrenching emotional spiral of A Simple Plan, and The Gift is downright sloppy.

Gimme Closure

When the film Clue was released, it had three different endings (it was based on the board game). A critic at the time pointed out that by making three equally plausible endings, the film was necessarily vague, and therefore, necessarily unsatisfying. You could never truly feel that justice was done because there was no single solution that made the most sense. Although The Gift has only one ending, the same complaints are true.

During the movie, I thought about the identity of the killer. It could have been any one of about 4 or 5 characters. Each had a motive or an opportunity. But instead of gradually giving each suspect an alibi until killer’s identity is revealed, the film sort of softly leads into a final scene, revealing the solution without resolving or refuting any of the other possibilities. It feels like it’s one of three possible endings.

Another complaint is that two psychic red herrings are introduced at the end. The final one introduces a supernatural phenomenon when a mere mortal explanation would have been equally convincing and would have made more sense. The vagueness of the killer and the arbitrariness of the ending taught me never to get too attached to any thoughts I might have about the plot, because it seemed it could change at a moment’s notice. When the credits suddenly rolled, I felt I was supposed to believe that The Gift was neatly wrapped up, even though I still had no strong sense of satisfaction or closure. And closure is what every good mystery demands.

Too Many Cooks

Perhaps it was my fault. Perhaps someone paying more attention would have felt more satisfied with the film. But from my point of view, Thornton, Epperson, and Raimi were too interested in the details of their story to take a step back and make sure it all held together. Another round of editing or a more insistent producer could have forced a little more structure onto this movie and improved it a great deal. Or perhaps, since there were 7 producers and 2 editors, it was a case of too many cooks.

The Gift is almost very good. It has good emotional tension, and the setting, mood and casting are all impeccable. Raimi and his cast and crew deserve a praise for what they did give us. But in the end, The Gift isn’t quite enough.