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Paramount Studios presents
The Gift (2001)

"Messing with The Devil's gonna get you burned. Everybody knows that."
- Donnie Barksdale (Keanu Reeves)

Review By: Rich Rosell   
Published: July 23, 2001

Stars: Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, Keanu Reeves, Greg Kinnear
Other Stars: Hilary Swank, Katie Holmes, Gary Cole, Michael Jeter
Director: Sam Raimi

MPAA Rating: R for For violence, language, and sexuality/nudity
Run Time: 01h:51m:21s
Release Date: July 17, 2001
UPC: 097363289548
Genre: suspense thriller


Style
Grade
Substance
Grade
Image Transfer
Grade
Audio Transfer
Grade
Extras
Grade
B C+BB B-

DVD Review

I really hate to fault director Sam Raimi for The Gift. After all, he is the man responsible for not only all three Evil Dead films, but the anti-hero classic Darkman, as well. Those films alone elevate him to near God status, and earn him a place on the mighty pedestal of really cool guys. Let's not forget his forays into bigger budget, mainstream filmdom with A Simple Plan and For Love Of The Game. Of course, all of Nerdville, myself included, anxiously awaits Raimi's 2002 treatment of Spider-Man. In my eyes, he has tackled the four basic movie food groups (monsters, superheroes, baseball, murder), and he has always managed to put a dark, twisty spin on things. With The Gift, Raimi delivers some of the trademark components, but something is sadly missing. The sum is just not equal to the parts.

Working from a Billy Bob Thornton penned screenplay (I guess marrying Angelina Jolie just ain't enough for some guys), Raimi drives a somewhat spooky tale of dark gothic americana in the small southern town of Brixton. Brixton is in either Georgia (where The Gift was filmed) or Alabama (because a character references "going to Mobile"), but that is really irrelevant. Wherever it takes place, it looks fine in the daylight, but it's creepy as hell at night, chock full of murky swamps, thick fog and gnarly trees. Raimi is a talented director, and he paints the night scenes like a nightmare, doing nothing at all to promote Southern tourism.

Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett) is a recently widowed young mother of three, eking out a meager living doing 'readings,' which is her way of saying she's a psychic. That is her 'gift,' hence the title. She does readings for the locals, telling them things about themselves using a deck of Zenner cards, which are the standard ESP cards that feature the wavy lines, a circle, a star, etc. Without question, her client list includes more than a few colorful characters, including spouse abused Valerie (Hilary Swank) and stammering mechanic Buddy (Giovanni Ribisi), both with the requisite twangy Southern accents that sometimes scream "I'M ACTING HERE!"

Before long, lusty sexpot Jessica (Katie Holmes), the fiancee of wholesome and meek Wayne (Greg Kinnear), ends up missing, and the local police reluctantly call on Annie after all other search efforts lead nowhere. Without revealing much more of the plot, rest assured that Annie gets whiffs of the crime sporadically, and before you can say "red herring," she is embroiled in a life or death struggle to find out what really happened to Jessica.

As Annie, Blanchett leads the pack in The Gift. Blanchett effortlessly ditches her real life English accent in favor of a slow Southern lilt, and she makes Annie 100 times more real than any of her screenmates. As an actress, she carries The Gift single-handedly on her shoulders, and makes Oscar®-winner Swank look second-rate, at best. Looking tired and a bit worn, Blanchett's Annie is a strong character, willing to take exceptional risks, yet still easily frightened.

Kinnear, Holmes, Swank, and Ribisi are just a small part of the ensemble cast that also features Gary Cole, Michael Jeter, Kim Dickens and yes, even a fun performance by Keanu Reeves. Reeves, normally pathetically stiff and comatose, including in The Matrix, gets to really chomp up the real estate as violent wife beater Donnie Barksdale. Barksdale is the epitome of squirrel hunting white trash, and he literally explodes into a rage in just about every scene he's in. A few more roles like this and I just may change my mind about Reeves.

So, what went wrong with The Gift? Sure sounds like a winner, doesn't it? Hell, luscious Katie Holmes even does a nude scene, for chrissakes. But even with all that it has going for it, it just moves a bit too slow to merit real tension, and too often resorts to cheap 'jump' shots. The film looks spooky, and there are spooky scenes, but it's just that the movie never truly gets a chance to decide whether it wants to be a supernatural thriller or a southern drama. Raimi's visualization of Annie's dream sequences are eerie enough, and provide more than a fair share of creepy cinema, but it's just not enough to salvage the overall package. By the time the end credits rolled, I was more than ready to leave Brixton.

Rating for Style: B
Rating for Substance: C+

 

Image Transfer

 One
Aspect Ratio1.85:1 - Widescreen
Original Aspect Ratioyes
Anamorphicyes


Image Transfer Review: Nice 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer from Paramount on The Gift. Overall, solid fleshtones and great depth of field on black levels, which is most evident in the numerous nightime swampy scenes. Minimal image issues, with edge enhancement noticeable only sporadically. I noticed little or no color bleed, and found this release to be a very decent visual treat.

Image Transfer Grade: B

 

Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access
DS 2.0English, Frenchyes
Dolby Digital
5.1
Englishyes


Audio Transfer Review: Paramount has given the standard issue audio options on this release, to no one's surprise really. A nice 5.1 mix, and an pair of low-end 2.0 mixes in English and French. The 5.1 mix is the obvious diamond here, and it is loaded with a ton of ambient and musical cues in the rear channels that lend a much needed mood of suspense to the proceedings. Decent spatial imaging, though nothing spectacular. Dialogue is always discernible, and anchored solidly.

Audio Transfer Grade: B

 

Disc Extras

Animated menu with music
Scene Access with 46 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English with remote access
1 Original Trailer(s)
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Amaray
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: dual

Extra Extras:
  1. Neko Case "Furnace Room Lullaby" music video
Extras Review: No Raimi commentary to be found. Too bad. Instead, we get the obligatory trailer, in widescreen, and a happy crappy 10-minute promo piece where everyone breaks their arms patting each other on the back. Moderately worth it to see Cate Blanchett looking very un-Annie Wilson like.

Did I mention the 46(!) scene cues?

As for the one remaining extra, I guess I'm most excited about Neko Case's video for Furnace Room Lullaby. A queen of the insurgent alt-country scene, Chicago-based goddess Neko rips through the title track from her 2000 release, though I could not find the song featured in the film anywhere, nor was it listed in the credits. Regardless, Neko rules the world and the video is intercut with scenes from the film, so at some point it must have been considered part of the intended final product. If you don't know Neko, look her up. She's the best, and deserves the exposure.

Neko alone elevates the extras grade level to a B-. Call me biased.

Extras Grade: B-

 

Final Comments

On it's most basic level, this is sort of a southern fried What Lies Beneath. Not surprisingly, I thought What Lies Beneath was a fairly weak film, suffering from much of the same ills that cripple The Gift, except, of course, for Katie Holmes related nudity. Good cast, good visuals, poor payoff. However, if What Lies Beneath rocked your world, then Raimi's The Gift is right up your alley. If you're a rabid Raimi fan, rent The Gift, and count the days until Spider-Man.

 


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