Tuesday, December 6, 2016

In short: The Gift (2000)

As a widow with three kids somewhere in the rural South of the USA, Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett) doesn’t have a particularly easy life. She’s earning a living as a clairvoyant, though in her particular case, this means she is a combination of amateur social worker and amateur psychologist, helping people in her community who’d never seek or find professional help with kindness and empathy as best as she can. There’s for example Valerie Barksdale (Hilary Swank) who is regularly abused by her prick of a husband Donnie (Keanu Reeves), despite Annie telling her again and again she should pack up and leave; or the local car mechanic Buddy (Giovanni Ribisi), whom she is trying to help confront some deeply buried trauma that is breaking him apart inside.

Annie does have actual psychic powers, mind you. Dreams and visions do tend to tell her things, and right now, those visions are telling her there’s trouble on the horizon, though it’s unclear what kind of trouble it is. The only thing that’s sure is that it’s going to be bad.

Say what you will against Sam Raimi (we all have suffered through that thing with Kevin Costner, and various odious comic relief outings by his brother Ted, after all), but the man has always been more than just a one-trick pony, by now showing a filmography that manages to be diverse in tone and style yet still showing a consistent world view and a personal touch.

So, it shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise that his Southern - mildly gothic and supernatural - thriller The Gift shows a filmmaker who is just as accomplished at making a character-focused film without any big set-pieces or much blood as he is when concerning himself with Bruce Campbell’s blood-spattering adventures or Spider-Man.

While its plot about guilt, murder, and ghosts isn’t terribly original – these things are what we expect in the South to happen right? - The Gift thrives on two things. Firstly, it carries a deep sense of place, turning what could be cliché South into something that lives and breathes like an actual place (from my chair in Germany I wouldn’t dare suggest an authentic depiction of the South, mind you), built up by Raimi through often surprisingly subtle framing choices and a direction style that always emphasises the bits of scenery that tell us about the place they belong to without the film ever actually pointing it out.

Secondly, there’s the acting ensemble. It’ll come as no surprise that Blanchett is pretty damn great, turning a character that could be your usual caricature medium right out of a mediocre TV show into a believable woman - in turns fragile, strong, sad, and nearly painfully compassionate without ever feeling like a sugary saint. On the other hand, it’s difficult not to be a little bit shocked by seeing Keanu Reeves do that thing I never thought he could do: act, and quite convincingly thanks to the magic casting someone against type can produce.

All of which leaves us with a calmly accomplished film that is unspectacular only in theory but in practice can knock off a pair of socks or two.

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