Have you seen ‘The Gift’?
In the pantheon of Sam Raimi’s filmography, a moody supernatural thriller like The Gift is probably the one you gloss over. After all, movies like Evil Dead, Spider-Man, and Drag Me to Hell are more indicative of Raimi’s kinetic style and verve. As a Raimi follower, I understand the nostalgic reverence for his magic behind the camera—especially now that he’s made a comeback with Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness. Weirdly enough, it’s the steadiness and restraint of The Gift that makes it a fascinating gem in his oeuvre, rough edges and all.
Released in 2000, The Gift already shows the director teeing himself up for a studio blockbuster. Rosemary Harris and J.K. Simmons pop up in this like a preview for Spider-Man. Though not a superhero (or an Elvish queen just yet), Cate Blanchett is our heroine and she’s backed by a stellar ensemble: Hilary Swank, Keanu Reeves, Greg Kinnear, Katie Holmes, Giovanni Ribisi, Kim Dickens, and Gary Cole. The Gift was also co-written by Billy Bob Thornton. Rest assured, Raimi’s Oldsmobile makes an appearance—although, no Ted Raimi or Bruce Campbell. It’s for the best, in retrospect.
Moody, dour, and somber, The Gift is a stark departure for Raimi. This is him merging his wildman horror sensibilities with the measured studio filmmaker he became in the late ‘90s. Raimi would get to go buck wild with Spider-Man in due time. And the synopsis for The Gift feels like him slyly planting a flag for a Doctor Strange movie.
Blanchett plays Annie, a psychic who provides readings for anybody in Brixton, Georgia. This being the South, her whole deal goes against the community’s stalwart Christian beliefs. She’s reduced to being called a fortune teller or devil-worshipper. Or “witch,” if the town’s bigots are being nice about it.
One night, Annie starts having visions of a murder, followed by torrential nightmares of where the body is buried. She finds herself dead-center in the town spotlight as she assists police in the search for the missing woman Jessica King, becoming a witness in the murder case, and eventual detective as the mystery isn’t as open-and-shut as it seems.
It’s the rare psychic whodunnit. With a loaded ensemble and plenty of drama to go around, you get the sense that all involved were chasing the Oscar tails of Silence of the Lambs and The Sixth Sense. Almost everyone is committing to the Southern accent, just as damn near everyone is crying in this movie. Dispensing with the awards prestige, The Gift is bottom-line a horror movie. Raimi trades the cabin for a small town, and vicious deadites for abusers and murderers. If Evil Dead is the full-tilt malevolent cabin run, then The Gift is a slow-burn Southern Gothic nightmare.
One of Annie’s clients is Valerie Barksdale (Hilary Swank), a woman ritually beaten up by her husband Donnie. We might delight in Bruce Campbell’s persistent torture in the Evil Dead trilogy, but we’re in on the joke—the deadites are essentially the Jackass crew pranking Ash in a series of escalating bits. But here, there’s nothing funny about Valerie’s trial of domestic abuse. Her bruises are shown in harsh daylight.
Early on, we understand that Annie’s home isn’t some carnival stop for couples on date night. Those isolated in Brixton seek shelter in Annie’s readings. Some pray to win the lottery. Others like Valerie seek morsels of hope to get through the week. So of course her abusive husband puts out that flame, too. It’s a different kind of possession story, and all the more terrifying because there’s no Necronomicon to undo the terror.
This is a year after Keanu Reeves played the ultimate good guy in The Matrix. His unkempt beard and sheepdog eyes make it a frightening heel turn. While Reeves plays a villain, he’s not THE villain who killed Jessica King. Donnie is the redneck herring in the whodunnit, and the inciting asshole who links everybody’s fates.
One of the more upsetting sequences is when Donnie barges into Annie’s home and drags his wife out. The camera work is as frenetic as a cabin besieged by a demonic entity, the camera shaking and rushing up to the shocked faces of Annie’s children who have never seen such violence. But it’s not a Kandarian demon at work; it’s a man. There’s no music in the sequence to elevate or cut the tension. It’s just Valerie’s helpless screams and the horror of an abuser maintaining his stranglehold on his victim. Donnie’s rage makes victims of Annie and her children, too.
Annie’s nightmarish visions, then, seem like a reprieve. Raimi knows how to dial up the surrealism with his patented zooms and canted angles. (Conjuring fans may spot precursors to Lorraine Warren’s psychic detection.) But at least those bits of fright wait for the sun to go down and are only Annie’s to bear. Donnie Barksdale’s terror, on the other hand, is ever-present. His threats can break into her home, come for her kids on the street, and haunt their lives 24/7. Annie bolts her door in fear of Donnie, not the dead girl that intrudes on her sleep cycle. Even the most vengeful of ghosts and demons come with rules or boundaries. Donnie has none.
When the trial is underway, we learn that Donnie’s abuse is something of an open secret. Characters come forward who’ve witnessed his beatings and looked the other way. The town is haunted in the sense that characters like Annie and Valerie ought to move out and never look back. Annie’s “gift” means she’ll have to deal with everybody’s ghosts because the authorities won’t intervene unless there’s a body.
Among Annie’s clients is Buddy Cole (an earnest Giovanni Ribisi) who’s struggling with his own victimhood. Buddy’s father sexually abused him as a child. No one came to his rescue, leaving a broken man on the verge of snapping. It falls on Annie to pick up the pieces.
Annie’s only backup comes from warnings beyond the grave. Raimi’s depiction of these ghosts is not at all different from how he lights the living characters. Ghosts could be anywhere, because there’s so much unfinished business on any corner in any home, including Annie’s. She might have a big heart and an open door, but the unresolved baggage of others traumatizes her children and eventually leads to her own unraveling.
The most harrowing shot in the movie isn’t one of ghouls or dead bodies. It’s a closeup of Annie taking the stand where she’s reduced to nothing by the defense. For a showman like Raimi who loves twisting and turning the camera, it’s when the frame is at its most still that winds up being the most compelling. It allows his lead actress to work her magic.
Because for a moment we forget it’s not Annie’s trial. Yet it feels like the town has gathered to witness her public shaming. It’s legitimately unnerving, and there are no blood or jump scares involved. It’s simply a series of brutal questioning paired with Cate Blanchett’s heartrending performance. We’re in the courtroom with her, and we’re guilty of watching Annie’s breakdown on the stand, too.
Blanchett’s casting is what sells the traumatic sequence of events. (It’s Galadriel, after all. She passed the test!) With any other actress, the story would read like emotional torture porn. But with someone as gifted (sorry) as Blanchett, we not only buy her vulnerability, but also her resilience and fortitude. Raimi used Bruce Campbell’s impeccable chin to delight in physical comedy and cheekily parody the ‘90s male action hero. With Blanchett, Raimi lays it bare: being a woman in this town is a daily commute to hell and back.
While the whodunnit premise is the movie’s weakest element, it nonetheless reveals the depths of male violence. The killer turns out to be Jessica King’s fiancé, Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear). Wayne kills her because she’d been having an affair. Her promiscuity upended his dream of a perfect home.
Wayne is positioned early in the movie as the endearing everyman. Being the school principal, he shows concern for Annie’s son. And he’s the only character who genuinely to wants to talk to Annie. But behind his good guy façade is someone quietly volatile. At least with the lumbering Donnie, there are no illusions. Across Raimi’s horror movies, evil can take on many shapes: deadites, mad scientists, or the kind eyes of Greg Kinnear.
Annie, in the end, is the final girl. She survived the loss of her husband. She survives Wayne’s attempt to cover up his crime. The nightmares might subside, but her horror story is far from over. Donnie will be exonerated and there’s no guarantee that his tirade will stop. It’s the true horror movie ending in the vein of The Evil Dead’s final scream into the camera. Raimi, mercifully, closes the movie with a family portrait. Annie stops looking into people’s futures for just a moment, allowing herself to grieve her husband and be with her kids in the present.
The Gift is a stark departure for Sam Raimi, a chance to do a different kind of horror movie. It’s domestic horror over supernatural horror. Some might find that compelling, others trying. Sure, some performances work better than others, and the characterization can be one-note or cartoony at times (Jessica King having slept with both the accused AND the prosecutor is more daytime soap opera than comp). That’s especially true of Annie’s compounding crises that are too much for any character to bear, fiction or not. Nonetheless, The Gift is an early and ferocious showcase for Cate Blanchett, and a uniquely restrained Raimi horror movie well worth the plunge.