What is so striking about The Gift upon revisiting it, is just how little of a horror film it is. Made during the height of Raimi’s mainstream period, the relatively staid films that Raimi directed inbetween his two franchises, The Gift would seem the type of film more comfortable playing in a double feature with Winter’s Bone than Evil Dead. Not necessarily a bad thing either.
The Gift features a script by Billy Bob Thorton and one of those casts that could only exist for the five minutes that the movie was being made. The kind that make you pause and go, “Cate Blanchett, Michael Jeter, Keanu Reeves, Katie Holmes, JK Simmons, Rosemary Harris, Giovane Ribsi, Greg Kinear, and Hillary Swank in a SOUTHERN Gothic. What the fuck?”
This motley crew of principles is assembled for the story of Annie Wilkes a small town psychic who has troubles enough before the local wild child goes missing, and she’s called on to use her powers to help the search.
It’s a film just as interested in the atmosphere and rhythms of the small town life as it is the solutions to its central and tangential mysteries. It’s the kind of place that Raimi and Blanchett take care in etching as awash in Southern Gothic tropes as it is (as Ebert noted “This is the kind of film where if you see a pond you know it’ll get dredged.) Carefully drawing a place awash in tradition and the kind of idle paternalism where the very act of Annie being a widow makes her suspect. After reporting an assault to a deputy and being told “Whelp Donnie’s a little high strung but I don’t think he’d do nothin’ like that. You know what kind of place it is.
The lackadaisical approach to the central mystery ends up being both its strength and weakness. Like the filmmakers realized they only had five minutes lef to go. To the characters in the story the supernatural is just another part of every day life, and Raimi shoots it more or less accordingly. Only breaking out his lurid feverish side for a dream like cameo from Danny Elfman, as a one legged swamp fiddler who haunts Blanchett’s dreams. Don’t go back to reread that sentence. You read it correctly.
The film’s cast does a game job, with Blanchett giving the kind of quality performance that always gets over looked because it’s in a genre film, Kinear at the height of his “rancid nice guy phase” and Keanu Reeves doing a shockingly credible job as an angry self pitying redneck. Don’t go back to reread that sentence. You read it correctly. Others, particularly Katy Holmes and Hilary Swank are left playing schtick. Looking and sounding as if they’re trying out for a road company Tennessee William’s play.
Try as it might the film doesn’t quite hold together. There are enough red herrings to open a fish market and it’s the type of film that doesn’t so much end as abruptly stop as if the filmmakers just realized that they had five minutes left before the end.
Because of all it’s problems The Gift will always be a minor film in Raimi’s career but it’s the kind of minor film that can make digging into the backlog of a director so rewarding for a starting cinephile. A film that is upfront about its flaws and does not insist on its pleasures so much as idly insinuates them.