- The Washington Times - Friday, January 19, 2001

2 and 1/2 out of four stars
TITLE: "The Gift"
RATING: R (Sustained menacing atmosphere; occasional profanity, graphic violence and sexual candor)
CREDITS: Directed by Sam Raimi
RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes

Cate Blanchett was one of the best reasons for keeping up with the movies in 1999. The delicacy and versatility that distinguished her work in "Pushing Tin," "An Ideal Husband" and "The Talented Mr. Ripley" are intact in "The Gift."
Here, she masquerades anew as an American: a small-town Georgia widow, Annie Wilson, who has three boys to raise and augments the family income by giving psychic readings, a "gift" that places both her reputation and her life in jeopardy during a murder investigation.
Annie is rumored to be a fictional homage to the mother of Billy Bob Thornton, who collaborated on the screenplay with fellow Arkansan Tom Epperson.
Their partnership first surfaced auspiciously with "One False Move." The new movie also is something of a reunion for collaborators on "A Simple Plan," a far more rigorous and compelling crime yarn than "The Gift."
Although Mr. Thornton does not play a role in the new film, it is directed by Sam Raimi, who achieved a freshly ominous refinement with "Plan."
Mr. Raimi has a watchable cast at his disposal, ranging from Giovanni Ribisi and Keanu Reeves at the criminally explosive end to Greg Kinnear and Rosemary Harris at the mild-mannered and ethereal end.
The film also has an inadvertent element of "trick" casting that seems to kid the 1999 Oscars. Although an Academy Award nomination eluded Miss Blanchett last year, the winner as best actress, Hilary Swank, has a thankless supporting role in "The Gift."
Indeed, her character, an abused but loyal wife named Valerie Barksdale, gets all the trouble started by confiding her miseries during a reading with Annie.
Valerie's husband, Donnie, played by Mr. Reeves in one of his good-for-nothing moods, is a brute. Valerie frequently soaks up punishment but remains too dependent emotionally and sexually to break away. Annie advises her to separate, in part because her concern is enhanced by premonitions of violence and disaster in which Donnie looms.
Annie's keenest lingering regret is that she failed to be candid about feelings of alarm on the day her husband was killed in an industrial accident. She's loath to remain silent about her fears for Valerie, who soon gives her concrete and personal reasons for apprehension: She blabs to Donnie about her conversations with Annie.
The tyrannical spouse shows up at the Wilson home to threaten Annie and the children. Donnie would appear to be the most vicious and undesirable inhabitant of little Brixton, Ga. (simulated by locations in and around Savannah), but he gets a pass from the mule-headed sheriff, who regards Annie as a social leper because of her psychic-reading gig.
The Barksdale crisis is linked to the disappearance of a shameless local belle named Jessica King (Katie Holmes). Though engaged to the awfully nice school principal, Wayne Collins (Mr. Kinnear), she has been carrying on with District Attorney David Duncan (Gary Cole).
Annie doesn't need psychic powers to intuit the clandestine affair: She blunders into eyewitness evidence during a country-club dance.
The town doesn't seem quite roomy enough for all its miscreants once Jessica disappears. Annie is consulted by Jessica's distraught father (Chelcie Ross), and her seance leads to the discovery of a corpse and the subsequent arrest of Donnie, an infuriated murder suspect.
At about this point, one's fondness for Miss Blanchett and her troubled but pure-hearted character begins to confront stumbling blocks of the whodunit persuasion.
Besides the threat of physical harm from Donnie or his cronies, Annie must endure vilification in the courtroom from the wretched defendant's snide attorney (Michael Jeter).
By the time Annie's vindication is the decisive order of contrivance, along with an overcalculated unmasking of the killer, the mystery elements look haggard and woozy.
Too many arbitrary and ill-advised twists have been piling up, leaving the movie in a tangle that defies persuasive psychological mystery or revelation.
That still leaves Miss Blanchett as a saving grace and the best reason for playing along with "The Gift." Unfortunately, the vehicle breaks down on the leading lady.


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