If A Simple Plan was Sam Raimi’s Northern gothic, then The Gift is his Southern gothic. Beautiful in its spareness and simplicity, it spins a chill-inducing tale from a seemingly mundane story by mixing in supernatural elements and treating them with a refreshing down-to-earthness.
In small-town Georgia, in a little white house under a weeping willow, recent widow Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett: The Talented Mr. Ripley, An Ideal Husband) lives with her two young sons. To make ends meet, she welcomes townspeople into her home and gives them “readings”: using ESP cards — the square, the star, the three wavy lines, and so on — like a tarot deck, she turns her “gift” for clairvoyance on their problems. When a prominent resident of the town disappears and the police are stumped, skeptical sheriff Pearl Johnson (J.K. Simmons: The Cider House Rules, The Jackal) reluctantly turns to Annie for help. Annie’s abilities are mild, but she is able to point the sheriff in the direction of a body… and the obvious conclusion that Annie might be able to see who dumped the body makes her the killer’s next target.
The Gift — written by Billy Bob Thornton (Sling Blade) and Tom Epperson — is the movie that this past summer’s What Lies Beneath wanted to be. Both start with the same basic premise: A lonely woman sees things beyond the normal human ken, which leads her to unravel a murder. But where Lies had to resort to such inanity as Ouija boards in its failed attempt to generate some fear, The Gift succeeds by downplaying itself and its characters, by grounding a perforce very unnatural story very much in reality. This is Unbreakable for people who don’t understand comics: it’s a “real” take on what it means to be psychic, dealing with the paranormal as normal; it’s not the feverish, fakey imaginings you find in movies, full of nonstop spooky noises, horrifying visions, and certain madness for the clairvoyant.
Raimi (Darkman) lets his cameras drift through swamps and forests of gnarled trees before settling in with his people, showing us the slightly eerie genuine reality of their remote world. Annie is as messily domestic as real folks are and movies folks aren’t: whether she’s hauling groceries in from the car or attempting to bake a cake with her son, Blanchett makes Annie as harried and worried, and as weary of everyday routine as moms get. Her gift is gentle at best, and a good case could be made for the possibility that she is not actually psychic at all, and only believes she is: Annie is more like a therapist or a priest than anything else, just listening to people who do not get listened to. She helps troubled young auto mechanic Buddy (Giovanni Ribisi: Gone in 60 Seconds, Boiler Room) through his problems merely by getting him to concentrate on taking care of himself. She counsels her friend Valerie (Hilary Swank: Boys Don’t Cry) to leave her abusive husband, Donnie (Keanu Reeves: The Matrix, Devil’s Advocate, who’s actually effectively terrifying here), but you don’t need to be psychic to see that evil-tempered Donnie is bad news and that Valerie, with her enormous shiner, is in real trouble. And Cate does not need to use her gift to know that the relationship between the kindly school principal (Greg Kinnear: Nurse Betty, Mystery Men, who becomes a subtler, more nuanced actor with each role) and a promiscuous socialite (Katie Holmes: Wonder Boys, Go) is doomed.
The Gift even flirts dangerously with cliché at a few points — the donut-obsessed sheriff, the ghostly vision of Annie’s grandmother who says, “Looks like there’s a storm coming” — as if daring to see how far it can go into the ordinary. Ultimately, though, The Gift, like Unbreakable, lifts itself out of fiction and into “reality,” creating its continual low-key ominousness as much from everyday horrors — the ones that surround Annie, like bigotry, sexual abuse, emotional betrayal, and garden variety domestic violence — as from a gruesome murder merely invented for a movie.