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.