The story of this film has been shown many times before. A young mother makes a modest living in her small southern town by being a psychic. A young woman is missing and later found murdered. The police reluctantly go to the psychic for help and she provides the clue they need to find the body. Fortunately, the co-author of the script, Billy Bob Thornton is a better writer than most that have taken this story on. For one, the psychic Annie (Cate Blanchett) is not the usual victim. She has an inner strength that drives her through the problems around her. One of her clients, a battered wife (Hillary Swank) is afraid for her life. Her brutal red neck husband (Keanu Reeves) is volatile and mean spirited. The young woman that is murdered (Katie Holmes) is engaged to the mild mannered high school councilor (Greg Kinnear). Problem is she is the slut of the county. The story weaves a web of lies, motives and characters that would be at place in any dime store mystery. What really helps this film along is the characters are usually more than two-dimensional. The audience can believe them and come to care for them. There are plenty of red herrings in the plot, a few twists that many in the audience will guess before they happen. There are a few sub plots that may seem to be filler but be patient, they all tie in for the ending.
Rarely have I seen such a cast as this film possesses. Cate Blanchett is a long way from the stately robes she sported in Elizabeth. She wears the role of a widowed southern mother of three with not only ease but out right grace. Although her character is frightened and confused she has the innate need to help others. She can draw from this caring the strength to get through all the intrigue that surrounds her. The advice she dispenses comes more from caring and common sense than the mystic. Reeves is in a different role than I have ever seen him in. As the wife beater he shows a darker character than his typical Its good to see him stretching as an actor. Kinnear is a bit more on familiar terms with his character. Through most of the film he is a bit wishy-washy, a man caught up in the circumstances. Holmes is a bit of a surprise here. While most of us are used to her in teen roles here she tries to break into more adult themes. As the town slut she has her share of sexually charged scenes. If she can break out of strange little roles she has the talent to take her to better roles. With smaller roles like the battered wife played by Oscar winner Hillary Swank and a demented garage mechanic by Giovanni Ribisi attention was given to each role in this suspense/thriller. Thankfully, many such stars have a lower pay scale for independent films. Because of this a small film like this can present talent that any studio would go broke putting together.
Sam Raimi is no stranger to the dark side of film. Perhaps best known for Darkman and his previous collaboration with Billy Bob Thornton as a writer in A Simple Plan. He is also directing the up coming Spiderman film. In The Gift Raimi provides the requisite atmosphere if a small southern town. The night scenes are dark and moody. Even in daylight the lens used seem to deceive the viewer. Raimi as almost perfect pacing as he moves you through the tale. Expository scenes are punctuated with just enough action to keep your attention drawn on the characters. With a cast like this it is best for the director to give the actors some freedom to employ their skills. Raimi appears to do this. His cast helps to flesh out the story even more than the script would seem to allow. As the director Raimi does not rely on fancy cuts or pans, his camera use is almost voyeuristic in nature. He brings the audience into the scene on a very intimate level. This gives the film almost a film noir feel to it. There is an excellent cooperation between the director, writer and actors here and it shows. The cinematography really helps to set the mood. From the dream sequences to the harnesses of the courtroom the camerawork never fails to deliver.
The disc is typical of many indies on DVD, a bit light on the extras. There is a music video and cast interviews but no making of featurette or commentary. The Dolby 5. 1 audio is well done. The rear speakers are used more to set the mood than for specific effects and the sub woofer provides some surprise activity. The video is 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer. It is extremely clear which is especially important for the many transitional scenes between very dark and light sets. The bottom line here is this is an excellent film even after you find out the surprise ending. It holds your attention, entertains and is a great showcase for some of the best talent in movies today.