Perhaps it's no fair to compare Dominik Moll's excellent
Hitchcockian thriller "With a Friend Like Harry" to Sam
Raimi's "The Gift." Moll does not include a psychic in his
more earthy tale of an unfortuitous meeting between an
ordinary guy who teaches French to Japanese students in
Paris and an old school chum he meets in a gas station rest
room. While Raimi's story features at least two psychos
who feel threatened by a psychic, Moll does better by
focusing on just one. "With a Friend Like Harry" gains
suspense by avoiding special effects: more is less in that
murder mystery. "The Gift" is the sort of movie that makes
one think of novels that begin "It Was a Dark and Stormy
Night." Unoriginal? That would be the way to describe
Raimi's by-the-numbers tingler which for all its supernatural
elements lacks the exceptional performances he got out of
his actors in "A Simple Plan"--his previous work that like "The
Gift," deals with an event that snowballs into a tsunami of
tension. To Raimi's credit this time around, though, he keeps
the occultism on a short leash, tossing in just a single cheap
bathtub shot that could have come out of Robert Zemeckis's
"What Lies Beneath."
This southern Gothic yarn, filmed in Savannah, Georgia, is
set in the backwoods of that state, a place whose residents
may no longer leave their doors unlocked by whose wooden
houses bear fragile doors and windows easily accessible to
people with evil thoughts on their mind. The principal
character, Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett), is a psychic who
feels guilty that she was unable to foresee and thereby
prevent her husband's death a year earlier in an explosion.
With three kids a small social security check, she makes a
modest living with her deck of cards, acting more as the
town's would-be social worker than anything resembling a
gypsy fortune teller. But her gift is not without drawbacks.
While she counsels the physically absued Valerie Barksdale
(Hilary Swank) to leave her redneck husband Donnie (Keanu
Reeves), she and her three young children are threatened by
the violent knave. When the beaten and bloodied body of the
whorish Jessica King (Katie Holmes) turns up in a pond on
Donnie's property, Donnie becomes the chief suspect. But
while Annie might let sleeping dogs lie, delighted that this
creep is behind bars where he can beat up no more women,
her moral sense tells her that he may not be the murderer.
As "The Gift" turns into a whodunnit, we in the audience
place our bets on the perp's identity. Could that be Jessica's
fiance, the handsome but considerably older school principal
Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear)? Or perhaps the convicted
man's wife, who suspects Jessica of having an affair with her
husband? Maybe the evildoer is the off-the-wall nut-case
garage mechanic, Buddy Cole (Giovanina Ribisi), whose soul
is tainted with a fierce anger toward his father and whose
periodic tantrums show him physically and psychologically
capable of irrational mayhem.
Cate Blanchett does show her breadth, her ability to play
nothing short of Queen Elizabeth in one year and a poor,
working girl in the boonies now. But Raimi has given
Giovannia Ribisi, whose energy was nicely channeled in his
performance as a stockbroker in the excellent "Boiler Room,"
an off-the-wall demeanor that simply does not ring true.
Raimi seems unsure whether to make Billy Bob Thornton and
Tom Epperson's script into something of the "Exorcist" genre
or a typical whodunnit mystery, but in either case "The Gift,"
scheduled for a holiday release, is of the sort that has stuffed
many a Christmas stocking for decades.
Copyright © 2001 Harvey Karten