The Gift

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The Gift

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The Gift

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After establishing himself as a giant of the moviemaking-as-a-contact-sport school with orgies of stylistic excess (Darkman, the Evil Dead series), Sam Raimi proved himself just as capable of subtle, character-oriented storytelling with 1998's superb A Simple Plan. A neo-noir grounded in the bleak conditions of its setting, that film excelled as both a human drama and a riveting thriller. Raimi pulls off the same feat with The Gift. In a performance every bit as magnetic and powerful as her career-making turn in Elizabeth, Cate Blanchett stars as a semi-professional psychic and widowed mother of three who serves as a paragon of virtue and honesty in a Southern small town desperately in need of both. Although alternately blessed and cursed with legitimate psychic powers, Blanchett mostly provides support and counsel to her working-class clients, who include a terrified battered wife (Hilary Swank) whose husband (Keanu Reeves) doesn't take kindly to the idea of her seeking supernatural advice. Although regarded with suspicion and contempt by much of the town, Blanchett is put to use by police after the promiscuous daughter (Katie Holmes) of a respected businessman disappears, and the process eventually leads to Reeves' arrest after Holmes' body is discovered. As in A Simple Plan, Raimi captures the desperation and sadness of life among the working poor through countless telling details—anachronistic hairstyles, Kmart ensembles, homes that barely qualify as functional—without resorting to the condescension and ridicule that typify most Hollywood depictions of working-class life. Raimi is particularly perceptive about gender roles, showing the ways the town's institutionalized sexism not only circumscribes what women can and can't do, but also stacks the deck against Blanchett even before her "gift" places her in mortal danger. The screenplay, by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, throws in too many red herrings, but Blanchett's performance smoothes over the occasional rough patches, and she's helped by a terrific supporting cast that includes Holmes, Greg Kinnear, Gary Cole, and an uncharacteristically terrifying Reeves. Raimi's sure hand and graceful storytelling falter only during the anticlimactic conclusion, a moment as needlessly convoluted and unconvincing as the rest of the film is vivid, compelling, and authentic.

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