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Movie Reviews

The Gift


Considering 'The Gift' is about a community of southern United States Hillbillies, it is a surprisingly well-crafted film, delivering suspense in the tradition of classic murder mysteries. Director Sam Raimi has moved a long way since his comical horror flicks, 'Evil Dead' trilogy. This film marks the second collaboration between Raimi and actor Billy Bob Thornton (dubbed by the Hollywood press as the 'Hillbilly Orson Welles') since 'A Simple Plan' in 1998, for which Thornton earned an Oscar nomination. Thornton is the co-screenwriter of 'The Gift', the title of the film refers to the psychic ability of Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett - The Talented Mr. Ripley, Elizabeth). The movie is something of a personal statement for Thornton, with the characters and scenery setting based on his southern American heritage. In particular, the main heroine, Annie Wilson, is based on Thornton's widowed mother who raised three sons and is a psychic by profession.
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The story takes place in the small town of Brixton, Georgia, where Annie is a psychic cum psychotherapist who has lost her husband in an accident and is financially struggling to raise her three sons. Annie offers her compassion and understanding to Valerie Barksdale (Hilary Swank), the battered wife of a redneck backwoodsman, Donnie Barksdale (Keanu Reeves). Their meetings angers Donnie and he begins to threaten Annie and her family. Meanwhile, Annie meets the handsome principal, Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear) and Wayne's floozy fiancée, Jessica King (Katie Holmes) at the school of her eldest son.

At the behest of her best friend, Annie agrees to go to the country club dance night where she again runs into Wayne and Jessica, the spoilt daughter of Brixton's richest businessman. The sleazy Jessica gets a quickie from another country club member in the powder room whilst Annie and Wayne have a tete-a-tete on the lawn. Jessica returns from her exploit and Annie goes home alone to her sons. The next morning, Jessica is missing and presumed dead. Relying on Annie's visions, the donut-chewing sheriff orders a search and discovers the body of Jessica lying rotting in an algae ridden swamp. Eventually a suspect is blamed and a court trial takes place with all the characters looking as suspicious as each other. Of course, by following the overused 'whodunnit' formula, the audience can see who the culprit is, without having to resolve to the use of any psychic power.

As a colourful array of southern country folk, the quality acting of the whole cast of 'The Gift' makes the film more commendable than what it should have been. Cate Blanchett performs admirably as the lead heroine, showing the same class as she displayed in 'Elizabeth'. To my surprise, even Keanu Reeves, whose 'surf dude' style past performances which have made me somewhat dubious of his acting ability, is believable and consistently faithful to the narrative. The only letdown is that all of the characters were too stereotyped and were similar to the characters from the board game 'Cluedo': spanning from the psychotic momma's boy, the redneck's battered wife, the country club slut and down to the skeptical sheriff.

I am sure the story could have benefited from a more appealing setting other than the preconceived notion of the 'Redneck' country. If stereotyping the south were really necessary, then I would have like to see more Ku Klux Klan activity, mullet haircuts accompanied with a bucket of fried chicken. To top it all off, none of the key actors are from the South, except perhaps Cate Blanchett who is from Australia! 'The Gift' is a well-told simple murder mystery, but from a screenwriter reputed to have the talent of the late great Orson Welles, I had expected a little more than these hillbilly stereotypes. But dang! That was exactly what I got.

By Desmond Yung

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