The Gift (2000)

The year was 2000. For the the third year in a row, Sam Raimi released a “this is the more serious Sam Raimi” type of movie. Though it combines a thriller story with southern gothic atmosphere and some supernatural elements, it’s his only movie to date that seems in a similar mode to A SIMPLE PLAN. And the script is by that film’s co-star Billy Bob Thornton, along with his long time writing partner Tom Epperson. The two had broken through as writers with ONE FALSE MOVE (starring Bill Paxton), followed by the lesser known A FAMILY THING and DON’T LOOK BACK. On the DVD extras for THE GIFT, star Cate Blanchett says that Thornton told her about the script while they were filming PUSHING TIN together. If it was his idea to cast her in the lead, good idea, Billy Bob.

Blanchett (not long after her first Oscar nomination for ELIZABETH) plays Annie Wilson, a widow raising three boys in a small town in Georgia. The titular gift is her clairvoyance, inherited from her grandmother (Rosemary Harris, UNCLE VANYA), which she uses to make a living, seeing clients in her home. She’s very helpful and beloved by most of the town, though treated with suspicion and superstition by a few assholes.

We meet the various players in town before the shit hits. She’s got a client named Valerie (Hilary Swank’s followup to her Oscar win for BOYS DON’T CRY) who doesn’t want to leave her abusive husband Donnie (Keanu Reeves shortly after THE MATRIX). But Donnie thinks Annie is trying to get her to, so he threatens her, throwing in unrelated racial slurs and anti-Semitism for good measure. The against-type casting of Reeves is very effective. There’s a terrifying scene where he storms into the house and drags Valerie out by her hair. He knocks over a can of paint in the process, it gets on Valerie, looking like blood. Annie runs out to help, slips on the paint and falls on her ass. It’s shot in a raw, loose style and all seems so wild and dangerous, a type of pulse-pounding Raimi hadn’t exactly done before.

And not only is Donnie scary whenever he shows his face, but Raimi establishes the sound of his Confederate-flag-adorned Dodge Ram so that we’ll hear him coming like the shark in JAWS. And it’s pretty clear that the system won’t help. After Donnie breaks into Annie’s house and leaves a threatening message a police officer tells her not to worry, “Donnie’s high strung” is all. “I know him, he’s a squirrel huntin buddy of mine.” Oh, okay then, I guess I shouldn’t worry.

We also meet Annie’s mechanic and friend Buddy (Giovanni Ribisi, THE POSTMAN), who adores her, feels he owes her for unspecified help she’s given him and is fiercely protective of her. We see what a mess and a powderkeg he is, though, when in the middle of driving her home he slams on the brakes and starts blubbering and she has to talk him down. The loyal friend side of him and the mentally ill side both figure into the thrillingly chaotic scene where he catches Donnie threatening one of Annie’s kids in the road, heroically intervenes… and ends up holding Donnie’s gun to his head screaming “SHOOT ME, YOU MOTHERFUCKER!” in front of the kid. Not all that comforting.

In a higher social stratus we have her kids’ friendly principal Wayne (Greg Kinnear, MYSTERY MEN) and Wayne’s heiress fiancee Jessica (Katie Holmes, DISTURBING BEHAVIOR, still on Dawson’s Creek), and this is where it becomes a thriller. Since Annie is friends with (and possibly attracted to) Wayne it’s very awkward when she sees Jessica fucking some dude (Gary Cole, IN THE LINE OF FIRE) in the bathroom at a country club party. Worse: the visions that tell her Jessica is going to be murdered.

When Jessica goes missing and leads dry up, her rich father (Chelcie Ross, RI¢HIE RI¢H) begs Annie to use her gift to help find her. Though these investigations take a toll on her and she already knows things she doesn’t want to say, she agrees. J.K. Simmons (EXTREME MEASURES) plays the sheriff who is also reluctant about the idea, always having to make sure everybody knows he doesn’t believe in this “mish mash” and “hocus pocus,” and comically saying “oh boy” when she lights a candle before a reading, as if it’s some freaky occult shit that’s gonna get him excommunicated.

(I would enjoy this character and performance even if we didn’t get the great pay off of him later being convinced and humbled.)

It’s sort of a whodunit, with a couple likely possibilities. Donnie ends up arrested and on trial, but we know he’s too obvious, and if we were paying attention we remember Annie saying “No, he’s not crazy enough to kill anybody, he’s just an insecure redneck” at the beginning, and if that’s what she senses than that’s the truth.

The best part of the trial is when prosecutor David Duncan – who Annie saw fucking the victim in the bathroom! – gets Donnie to admit he was having an affair with Jessica, and Donnie says she “said I was the only man in town knew how to fuck.” Annie’s probly the only one in the courtroom who knows why David makes that face.

The movie hinges mostly on the strength of the performances, especially Blanchett’s. The camera is usually on her face, and there are so many scenes where she doesn’t want to tell someone she’s sensing something bad. Of course we see it, and they see it too, but she never goes over-the-top with it, because they have to be able to believe her when she lies about it.

Ribisi goes much further in the direction of (and perhaps past) the top, and I think it’s probly the best I’ve seen him. Annie is the only person he feels able to reach out to, and he’s so absolutely on the edge of total collapse that she’s barely keeping him there. He eventually realizes which childhood trauma has made him this way, and lashes out violently against those responsible, just one of the harrowing side streets the plot goes down.

One thing I find really compelling about Annie as a protagonist is that she shows strength and courage in a different way than our standard protagonists. She isn’t bold in a traditional way. She doesn’t hide her fear, and she cries or has tears in her eyes more than most movie heroes. During some of the scarier confrontations she visibly shakes or heaves. But she also has no one to help her, and three kids to take care of, so her approach is usually to take a deep breath and a step forward and do the thing that she’s terrified of. When she comes home and hears the TV on a televangelist, because Donnie is inside, she calmly tells the kids to wait outside, gets a baseball bat, and slowly creeps in to face him. It’s a more true-to-life version of Ash’s action hero awakening.

Speaking of whom, Bruce Campbell is not in the movie. But there are a few nods for Raimi fans: Annie drives the EVIL DEAD Oldsmobile throughout the movie, and though the score is by HELLRAISER’s Christopher Young, DARKMAN/A SIMPLE PLAN composer Danny Elfman appears in a vision as a manic fiddler. Of course Cole and Ross are returning from A SIMPLE PLAN, and Simmons from FOR LOVE OF THE GAME. This also reunited Raimi with editor Bob Murawski, who he’d worked with on ARMY OF DARKNESS and (as a producer) HARD TARGET. Since THE GIFT he’s done all of Raimi’s movies.

Cinematographer Jamie Anderson only did this one movie with Raimi, but he has an unusual filmography that includes several with Joe Dante (HOLLYWOOD BOULEVARD, PIRANHA, SMALL SOLDIERS) plus WHAT’S LOVE GOT TO DO WITH IT, GROSSE POINTE BLANK, JAY AND SILENT BOB STRIKE BACK and BAD SANTA. Oh, and THE FLINTSTONES IN VIVA ROCK VEGAS.

It’s fair to say THE GIFT is at least partially a return to horror. The opening shots are like a more noticeably southern version of an EVIL DEAD atmosphere. But the thunderclaps and flashes of a violent attack are more of a ‘90s thriller approach. Annie also has horrific psychic visions, and sees a somewhat Deadite-like drowned-ghost Jessica. But it’s all on a completely different frequency of horror than any EVIL DEAD movie. One of my favorite moments in the movie, when Jessica grabs her fiance and playfully asks Annie, “You think we’ll live happily ever after?” (uh, yeah, sure, lady! Real happily!) Raimi zooms in on Annie’s face and her hair blows, a trademark shot of his but slowed way down for more of a tightening dread than an explosive thrill.

Promoting the film in an interview with Anthony Kaufman on Indiewire, Raimi said

“As for the horror, it was a different type of challenge, because in the EVIL DEAD movies I can go crazy. I can do anything I want. But in this movie I had to work in a particular framework where I didn’t violate the reality of the characters or the screenplay or the setting. Try and make the supernatural not as exciting and not particularly as frightening as I wanted. It was more about making it believable as a real thing that the audience could accept. So it was a strange constraint that was tough on me, because I had to use restraint. And I couldn’t hammer the audience. I couldn’t punish them in the way they deserved to be punished.”

THE GIFT was released by Paramount Classics, a label made for the studio’s more arthouse fare like THE VIRGIN SUICIDES and YOU CAN COUNT ON ME. They gave it a slow roll out, something you don’t usually see these days. It opened on 3 screens on December 22nd and five weeks later finally made it onto 805 screens and the box office charts (at #13). Though it didn’t make much of a dent in the popular consciousness (or become a cult favorite like so many Raimi movies) it did manage to more than quadruple its small budget at the worldwide box office.

Roger Ebert loved this one too, and reviews overall were fairly favorable, though not nearly on the level of A SIMPLE PLAN. Some DVD releases used a Peter Travers quote that says “A SEXY TWIST-A-MINUTE THRILLER!,” which is fucked up. It’s a gloomy movie that includes murder, domestic abuse and uncovering of child molestation. What little sexuality happens is not presented in a positive light. It was somewhat buzzed about that Holmes appeared naked in the movie, but it happens right before (and during) her character’s murder. Yuck, Peter.

At the time I thought THE GIFT was pretty good, and I think it has improved by watching it a few more times over the years. It’s definitely one of Raimi’s most ignored, and therefore underrated, films.

On the other hand, this is only the second best Raimi film of the “serious” Raimi period, which is not my favorite Raimi period. Pretty good for when he’s restrained; I wish he wouldn’t be restrained. In the aforementioned Indiewire interview, Raimi explained the shift in priorities between his earlier films and the A SIMPLE PLAN/FOR LOVE OF THE GAME/THE GIFT triptych:

“I got into the business just interested in the concept of the movie camera as a miracle… My father would film 16mm movies of the kids and I was amazed that he could capture reality and then replay it… And then the fact that he would then cut the reels out of order was even more outrageous because then he had not only captured reality, but he was messing with the time sequence that reality took place in… I was interested in exploring that concept. What do shots mean when you cut them together in certain sequences? What effects do they have? What does the movement of the camera mean in conjunction with this ballet of images and sounds and movement and what affect does it have on the audience? So it was about filmmaking only, not about the acting or the writing of the screenplay. But as I started to look at my movies I realized what interested me as a student of film was one thing and the movies that I liked were another. Then I recently thought maybe I should start to make the type of movies that I like to see versus just experimenting with the medium of film.”

Oh no! Are you telling me that Sam Raimi doesn’t love Sam Raimi movies like we do? So it would be unfair for him to have to keep making them? I hope he doesn’t/didn’t really believe that. He also says “I started to think it may have been a selfish thing,” for him to have been making these movies we loved so much. Is he Darkman? Is he telling himself that he’s bad for us, and turning his back on us to pursue the grim mission he feels is required of him? I hope not.

Well, there’s some good news. At the time of that interview Raimi was already working on by far his biggest film to date. For the first time he would have access to an actual huge budget, that would be used to pioneer new special effects and achieve things that were previously believed unfilmable. He would get his hands on a favorite character of his childhood, fulfill his dream of creating fun mainstream non-X-rated entertainment, and yes, he would dip back into his old bag of camera tricks rather than letting those talents go to waste.

This entry was posted on Tuesday, January 25th, 2022 at 7:06 am and is filed under Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

25 Responses to “The Gift (2000)”

  1. This is a pretty fun one, as far as slow burn thrillers with a supernatural angle, that touch on uncomfortable angles go. It felt like Raimi was slowly recharging with this one, after the last two were as un-Raimi as possible. Remarkable is also that it came out the same year as Keanu’s other big villain turn in THE WATCHER (which sadly is mostly memorable because of its crazy production history). So that was quite interesting to see how that 90s heartthrob, who often got ridiculed for his acting abilities, not just became a huge popculture icon, but also played two awful shitbags within a short amount of time.

    And say what you want about Raimi’s sell-out (Or self-finding? Experimental? Establishing himself as reliable studio hack and not just quirky cult director?) phase, but something tells me if these three movies would’ve been more on the ARMY OF DARKNESS side of his filmography, he probably wouldn’t have gotten the SPIDER-MAN gig.

  2. I don’t think I’ve seen this one since the theater, but all these years (decades? How is that possible?) later, my main memory is of how utterly fucking terrifying Keanu is in this. For years before the Keanussance, when I still liked him but he was the go-to hack joke reference point for “bad actor,” I would bring up this movie. “Yeah, he gets miscast a lot, but did you see THE GIFT? He owns THE GIFT, and he’s going up against two Oscar winners.” Nobody ever believed me, but I think time has proven me right that there was always something interesting about Keanu that the snarkers chose not to see.

  3. I really like THE GIFT a lot. And it’s one of my go-to movies in a discussion of great movie performances because Giovanni Ribisi is astounding in it.

  4. In terms of Raimi’s three more “normal” movies, this is actually my favorite. I love the atmosphere and the characters. A Simple Plan is great but I like the many modes of The Gift.

    Something about Reeves…he has a few wheelhouses where he’s great. Action movies, not because HE’S so great as an actor in them, but he commits to the action stuff and more importantly picks grea project. Obviously the goofy Bill and Ted stuff. But when it comes to dramatic acting, he shines when he plays a Southern cracker. I remember being shocked at how excellent he was in The Devil’s Advocate, and then I saw this one later and it’s like throw a Southern accent on to the guy and for some reason he shines.

  5. THE WATCHER was, if I recall correctly, a literal contractual obligation on Keanu’s part. It’s not great, but a pretty easy watch if you like that kind of thing, almost like a dry run for CSI and the like. I remember there are some kind of cheesy but still kind of cool Graphic novel quasi-animatic scenes showing James Spader’s backstory, and Keanu must be a big fan of Rob Zombie’s “Dragula”, because here he is dancing to it a year after THE MATRIX.

    For some reason I never figured out, there was a poster for that film in my form room* the first year of Sixth Form**, I guess the reason must have been either “it was free” or “it was cheap”.

    *A room British school students go to at the start of the morning to have the registers taken before the rest of the day.
    ** Age 16-17, the equivalent to being a High School Junior in the US, though when I was in school this was the first post-compulsory (though still free) year for education in the UK
    (Come for the Keanu discussion, come for the dated British education facts)

  6. “And I couldn’t hammer the audience. I couldn’t punish them in the way they deserved to be punished.”

    I think that might be my favorite Raimi quote ever.

  7. Another great Keanu performance (and all-around incredible movie) is MY OWN PRIVATE IDAHO.

    Peter Travers, though? That guy sucked.

  8. I have never seen this movie. In fact, I have barely even read anything about it (I know it exists because at the time it came out, I was working for a publisher that put out a knockoff Celebrity Skin type magazine and I swear they had Katie Holmes’ name on the cover for something like six months), but this writeup makes me want to watch it. I will dig through the archives of the multiple streaming services to which I subscribe and check it out.

  9. Pacman: THE WATCHER started out with Keanu agreeing to do a cameo in a friend’s directorial debut (he was originally only supposed to show up at the end in a surprise killer reveal like you-know-who in SESEVENEN)but apparently ended in a bunch of lawsuits, including one over Keanu’s assistant forging his signature on a contract.

    Sadly the movie really wasn’t worth all that. It’s a mediocre thriller with a musicvideo style, that made me more than once think my DVD was broken. It’s really only for Keanu and/or James Spader completists. Thankfully the far superior THE GIFT had a longer shelf life.

  10. Have not seen this in probably 15+ years, but I LOVED it when it came out. Some seriously fucking creepy imagery and haunting shit (#bluediamond), and we all know Cate Blanchette is a bawse (another one who could’ve been a strong QUICK AND THE DEAD lead).

  11. I thought Sharon Stone was fine, okay, not horrible…but Blanchett would have been awesome.

  12. Yeah, Muh, I feel about the same way. Stone is a fine actress, I just didn’t love her for the role. Blanchett is in another league imho.

    I totally forgot about Keanu, but it’s coming back. He was good.

    Greg Kinnear is solid, too. Is there such a thing as a Greg Kinnear fan? What’s funny is I first learned about him while on vacation watching cable at my grandparents house, and they had whatever network i didn’t have that had TALK SOUP, so, I watched TALK SOUP every day for like a week, and I liked Greg Kinnear on that. So, by the time he became a bona fide actor, I was kind of tickled to see him on the come up, but then he sort of disappeared into supporting character actor guy land. Anyway, he is good in this, and he was also quite good in AUTO-FOCUS, which is a weird, dark little film that is haunting in its own way, and national treasure / Raimi-verse connection Willem Dafoe is also great in that one.

  13. Not me. I can’t deny Blanchette’s talent, but mere site of the name makes me drowsy. Even in good films, you can still sense the faint aroma of Awards circuits for films you would never dream of watching. I am perfectly aware this is a stupid and wrong opinion, but we’re all entitled to some of those. I don’t love Stone in everything, but she is/was a proper movie star IMO.

  14. I said “site” rather than “sight”, like all philistines.

  15. My sense of her is that she is not a snob and is game to do goofy things (THOR, INDY 4, the GIFT, here), and she probably could’ve gone the Angelina Jolie / ScarJo route of becoming an action heroine but just didn’t care enough about the money to do things that bore her. She is incredible in BLUE JASMINE, fun and extremely accessible in TALENTED MR. RIPLEY, excellent in NOTES ON A SCANDAL (back when I’d watch anything before streaming ruined my movie watching life). This performance in the gift is probably my favorite thing she’s done tbh — maybe a tie with BLUE JASMINE.

    But play on player, I’m not going to tell you who to sock it to, etc.

  16. Leaving aside her filmography, which is a mix of popular stuff and dramas…Blanchette wouldn’t have seemed lost amid a crowd of real, excellent actors. Stone is the void of that movie…again, not BAD per se…but clearly the movie got made because this was three years after Basic Instint and she wanted to do it, the movie followed the star instead of being a director’s movie where the lead is cast, and it shows. Luckily it’s a goofy-ass movie so it doesn’t hurt it too much, she almost becomes background scenery a lot of the time. Blanchette actually seems like she could throw a punch and mean it.

  17. Grimgrinningchris

    January 26th, 2022 at 11:24 am

    I’m getting a little ticked at people tossing off Stone’s talent. There’s a reason that she headlined movies from Verhoeven, Raimi, and Scorsese in a row… And it wasn’t her tits or her vagina.

  18. She headlined a movie for Raimi because she handed him the movie. A whole lot of actresses turned down Basic Instinct but no one wanted to do it…so Verhoeven went to an actress he worked with before. No one is saying she sucks. She was pretty excellent in Casino, and really good in Instinct. I don’t think she’s much in Dead, she’s perfectly fine and okay. She has great taste in wanting Raimi for sure.

  19. Yeah, Stone is great in TOTAL RECALL and BASIC INSTINCT. She’s clearly got talent and charisma for days. I have never seen CASINO, but I hear good things. She’s definitely a victim of the sexism and typecasting as far as her film career having an expiration date (isn’t that pretty much all actresses except Meryl Streep and Judi Dench?), and I do really respect her going after QATD and making it a thing, even if I think she’s only serviceable in it. In the annals of cinema history, she’s dope / tough broad, etc. Respect.

  20. In all fairness regarding Stone: In a movie with THAT roaster of character actors being allowed to play as show-offy as they want, most actors would have difficulty to make the protagonist role stand out. I think Stone is great in her part, she just has the misfortune of playing one of the squarest (In comparison to all the others) characters.

  21. Sort of and it is an uphill climb, but I don’t think Kurt Russell had that problem in a similar situation with screen chewing supporting actors in Tombstone.

  22. I’ve always felt that a measure of a movie star is who they’ll get up on screen with. Even before the late blooming of Tom Cruise into someone who makes movies I care to watch more than once I couldn’t fault him for his co-stars: Hoffman, Hackman, Newman, Nicholson etc. Sharon Stone seems to have had a similar ethic, although maybe we shouldn’t talk about SLIVER.

    And while I might think her using her clout to get remakes of GLORIA and LES DIABOLIQUES made was redundant, it’s easy to see why an actor with ambition would want to try playing those characters, even if it meant casting herself in the shadows of Gena Rowlands and Simone Signoret.

  23. I am enjoying this Raimi retrospective, as it’s gotten me to finally catch up to the Raimis I hadn’t seen, and revisit some others. I knew almost nothing about The Gift, so it was fun to go in blind. I definitely didn’t know it was a supernatural murder mystery with a script co-written by Billy Bob Thornton based on his own psychic mother(!).

    I dug this one, more than A Simple Plan. Raimi was less restrained here. I dug the little spooky touches, like Blanchett’s hair blowing from non-existent wind, or Rosemary Harris appearing behind the sheet. I also agree this is one of Keanu’s best performances. But it’s Cate Blanchett’s movie. She’s absolutely terrific in this. Every look or movement is perfectly tuned to the scene or moment. You can see her thinking and feeling. Her character isn’t a hero or a victim, just a person in unusual circumstances trying to navigate her way through it as best as possible. She could say something when she foresees Katie Holmes’ doom, or sees her with Gary Cole, but she doesn’t. And when things go wrong, she learns that with great power there must also come great responsibility. It’s not a flashy part, but Blanchett absolutely owns the screen. Plus she is in an exclusive club of actors who got to drive the Delta 88 onscreen.

    Raimi would work with Greg Kinnear again when he directed two episodes of Kinnear’ short-lived series Rake.

  24. The performances in this are spectacular. I think that’s a mark of Raimi’s maturity as a director by this point. When the whole team is nailing it, you know they have a great coach. That’s a sports metaphor. I am familiar with sportsball, I have seen it played on the television.

  25. Well, I liked it. It’s basically an EC Comics story, the same as Drag Me To Hell, but one of the ones that’s mostly down-to-earth instead of all zombies and werewolves. If this were a Tales From The Crypt episode, we’d all be knocked out of our socks by it, even without Billy Zane punching through anyone’s skull.

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