Sam Raimi is probably one of the most beloved genre filmmakers. He is often categorized as a horror director, even though he has only directed five films that fit the genre (six if you want to count Darkman). Raimi is the creator of the Evil Dead franchise, director of the Spider-Man trilogy (2000's), and the co-founder of Ghost House Pictures. The man is a wild-card filmmaker, whose name has been attached to many distinct products over the years.
It’s safe to say that most horror enthusiasts are at least familiar with Evil Dead, a fan favorite among followers of comedy horror and extreme horror. There’s also a sizable following for Raimi’s 2009 film, Drag Me to Hell, which brought Raimi back to his off the wall roots after his run on Spider-Man. These entries paint similar pictures of problematic, but sympathetic protagonists tormented by demonic forces. The demonic tricksters have the power to end life on a whim, but have their own twisted sense of humor and prefer driving the protagonist insane over time.
I’d like to discuss the outlier, the supernatural murder-mystery, The Gift. Released in 2000, prior to Raimi’s tenure on Spider-Man, The Gift marked Raimi’s second collaboration with Billy Bob Thorton, who previously co-starred in Raimi’s adaptation of A Simple Plan two years prior. Thorton spent the 90's establishing himself as a promising screenwriter of Southern Gothic tales, the most notable being his directorial debut, Sling Blade. He followed that with his adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s All the Pretty Horses. I must admit that it took me by surprise to learn that, while absent from the screen, Bad Santa was writing a horror movie.
The Gift follows recently widowed mother of three, Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett), a clairvoyant fortune-teller who resides outside the small town of Brixton, Georgia. It’s the kind of town where you’d think everybody owned a gun. When the town’s local “good girl/rich girl,” Jessica (Katie Holmes), turns up missing, Annie has a vision that leads the police to where her body has been disposed of. After her body is recovered from the bottom of pond, the prime suspect becomes local wife-beater, Donnie (Keanu Reeves). It turns out, Jessica had a few secrets she wasn’t really good at hiding. A pretty much open and shut case ensues, but Annie has another vision which hints that the real killer is still at large. Not wanting to draw more attention from the townsfolk, who may not be ready for a witch, Annie takes it upon herself to find who killed Jessica.
That’s the main plot of the film on paper. A straight-on backwater thriller/ghost story, where you can probably see the twist coming from the beginning. However, there’s an under-utilized subplot which could have made for a completely different movie. This story follows Buddy, played excellently by Giovanni Ribisi, the local auto mechanic, who is a friend and frequent customer of Annie. Though soft-spoken and kind, he’s quick to anger, and harbors a rage against his father that he’s struggling to understand. Throughout his screen time, he attempts to confide in Annie, whose involvement in the A-story causes him to spiral further. The audience discovers that Buddy has long repressed memories of sexual abuse from his father, which have been begun to surface. The much more mature story, honestly, should have had more focus. Ribisi basically steals the show during this subplot, proving he’s an underused talent. I have a feeling that this would have been Billy Bob Thorton’s character if he had stayed with the production.
From a production stand-point, Raimi’s trademark style is very subdued throughout The Gift. There are none of the quick cuts, zooms, and chaotic tracking shots we come to expect. That’s not to say it’s not cool to look at, however. The camerawork and visual storytelling are arguably the saving grace of the film. Raimi takes advantage of more subjective point of view shots, particularly with the many dream and vision sequences. We’re put pretty close to the action with Annie in these, but it’s a little hazy. We’re not seeing the clear picture yet, but we’re are getting more information than we think. We’re also treated to an array of wide shots showing the quiet, tranquil Georgia location that makes you forget you’re watching a horror film. The film sometimes forgets that itself.
Now where The Gift loses its footing is within its pacing. From the beginning, Annie knows “something” is going to happen to Jessica. From there, we’re waiting, and we’re spending more time establishing Donnie as a villain before the plot finally kicks into gear. The body is found around the halfway point, but the reveal that the killer is still around comes about thirty minutes before the end credits (the runtime is 111 minutes). Throughout Donnie’s screen time, we witness him drag his wife out of a house, verbally/physically assault women, break into Annie’s house to vandalize it, and point a gun in front of a child. It’s an obvious red herring, but even if we know Donnie didn’t kill Jessica, at this point we don’t care. He’s a one-dimensional villain with nothing redeemable and out of the movie once convicted.
Overall, The Gift is the definition of a mixed bag. There are good elements to it as described, such as Ribisi’s subplot and acting. There are even the small inclusions of future Spider-man alumni, J.K. Simmons and Rosemary Harris who manage to leave an impact with only a few scenes. However, the film is a slow burn and spends a good portion of the runtime on aspects that didn’t really come into play. It’s worth watching once to see Sam Raimi’s more unique and lesser known period from the mid to late 90's. You can’t go in assuming the level of insanity you would expect from a Raimi horror film. It may not be satisfying to some, but it’s worth discussion. Could it have been better with more of Thorton’s involvement, or even if he directed the film himself? That’s something I will be wondering for a long time.
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