Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett), the clairvoyant heroine of The Gift, is a young widow in a backwater Georgia town. With the right deck of cards, Annie is endowed with psychic vision, which she uses to support her three school age sons by giving readings. Most of her neighbors are mired in pulpy troubles – an emotionally fragile car mechanic (Giovanni Ribisi) is tortured by ”unchristian thoughts” rooted in childhood abuse, a battered wife (Hilary Swank) can’t leave her violent husband (Keanu Reeves), who threatens Annie for doing the devil’s work, that sort of cinematic woe.
But with the disappearance of Jessica King (Katie Holmes), the town’s teasing rich girl and fiancée of the local school principal (Greg Kinnear), Annie’s visions become a burden – to the cops, to the suspects, and, not least, to Annie herself.
”The Gift” comes wrapped in an enjoyable miasma of low rent Southern hoodoo. It’s got the pleasing proportions of a stocking stuffed with agreeable little treats in the absence of an exciting big surprise. There’s none of the vertiginous inevitability of mounting misdeeds that made ”A Simple Plan” so electric a thriller two years ago, but director Sam Raimi once again demonstrates his sure hand with genre and his eye for fresh kinetic composition. (Raimi might argue that, at heart, both movies are about the path to redemption; I’m beginning to think ”redemption” is the warranty put on products to convince consumers it’s okay to enjoy soaking in evil.)
On the one hand the story is missing ”Plan”’s volatile craziness: Cowritten by ”Plan” star Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, it feels like the work of very promising students still finding their unique partnership voice. Interlock the pieces of the puzzle and you get the finished cardboard picture, nothing bigger. On the other, the great cast, responding to the director’s confident delight at working B size, does interlock to become an ensemble brighter than the individual character’s primary colors.
In particular, Blanchett, that shining Australian star, transforms herself into a Southern widow as magnetically as she became a steely American debutante in ”The Talented Mr. Ripley.” And Swank’s fragility as a beat up wife opens a vein of excellent undead malevolence in Reeves – suggesting that the greatest gift the actor could give himself as an artist (as opposed to as a ”Matrix” zombie) would be to re up in Raimi’s rollicking army of darkness.