Sam Raimi’s new scary movie isn’t nearly scary enough. To be sure, there are a few visceral jolts as the yucky details of a dead girl’s brutal death are uncovered, as well as the usual fake-out when a something harmless jumps out from behind a door, but for the most part, there’s nothing in this movie that’s very clever or frightening. (Unless you count Keanu Reeves dropping his voice an octave to convey menace—or at least, I think that’s what he’s doing.) The fact that the movie is not scary is more disappointing in the case Raimi, than it might be for any Joe-Blow director, because Raimi, as his fans know very well, is the mastermind behind the Evil Dead trilogy, a brilliantly escalating series of horror movies starring the gigantically good sport Bruce Campbell. Since completing Army of Darkness: Evil Dead 3 in 1993, Raimi has gone on to other, less signature projects, notably the foofy Kevin Costner baseball vehicle, For Love of the Game, the stark and considerably more successful A Simple Plan, and the underrated po-mo-ish Western, The Quick and the Dead. But the Evil Deads maintain a kind of deathly grip on the filmmaker’s devotees.
Unfortunately, it is these folks who will most likely be disappointed with The Gift, a movie that should have been scarier, smarter, and subtler in every way. It’s not so obviously misconceived as the Costner movie, but it’s not nearly so deft as Raimi’s early, shoestring budget work, and not quite so grandly horrified by the human condition as Darkman. Instead, it’s a mishmash, a series of creepy images that never give you a reason to care whether the characters survive them or not. A large part of this problem stems from the fact that The Gift telegraphs its supposed plot twists long before they actually occur. And this makes you worry both too much and not enough for the film’s designated psychic, Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett, in a performance considerably more nuanced than the movie she works so hard to sustain), because you’re able to see things coming that she does not. In other words, her psychic abilities don’t appear to be very special.
Recently widowed, Annie lives with her three young sons in the town of Brixton, Georgia, which provides a context for the film’s overkill Southern Gothic imagery (swamps, mists, and trees that look almost human) and lots of thunderstorms. In Brixton, the distinction between the rich folks and the trashy folks couldn’t be clearer—for one thing, the trashy folks tend to speak more Suthuhn, and for another, they have jobs, menial or odd as they may be. The rich folks, as far as you can tell, spend their time at the local country club and/or screwing around with the poor folks: these include the glaringly named Kenneth King (Chelcie Ross) and his slutty daughter, Jessica (Katie Holmes). Annie’s own social life is at something of a standstill: her friends are also her clients, meaning, she “reads” for them (from cards she lays out on the table in repeated close-ups, so you can see her slender, strong fingers and neatly clipped nails). She then dispenses advice, which, for all the faith they seem to have in Annie, they seem to follow only rarely. And it’s like what she’s telling them to do is exactly outrageous: she tells one guy with bloody urine to go see his doctor, and another, the twitchy, red-eyed, clearly disturbed Buddy (Giovanni Ribisi), that he needs to start “dealing with” his terrible childhood memories. “What did your father take from you?” Annie asks. At this moment, it’s hard not to be thinking, “Duh.”
The client who takes up most of Annie’s time is Valerie Barksdale (Hilary Swank, whose underclassness is designated not only by her accent, but also by her terrible haircut). Poor Valerie comes to her appointments wearing huge sunglasses, but Annie, being a psychic, divines the truth—Valerie’s husband Donnie (Reeves) beats her regularly. Of course, she’s afraid to follow Annie’s advice and leave him. When Donnie comes after Annie for giving out such advice, he becomes a far too obvious villain to actually turn out be The Villain (again, that telegraphing thing). The ground for this villainy has to do with murder, which, in a small Southern town in the movies, is almost always an unspeakably dire event. In this case, you’ve likely guessed by now, Annie has access to the truth of who’s dead and where the body is. Trouble is, she doesn’t quite figure out who committed the atrocity until it’s almost too late. Ordinarily, her error (she helps send the wrong guy to prison by testify to her “gift” in court, and in front of a defense attorney played by Michael Jeter, to boot) might create some suspense, but in this case, you’re bound to be wondering—again—why she’s so damn slow on the uptake.
The dead girl’s body keeps appearing to Annie in grotesque poses and covered in mud and watery goo, suggesting in none too obvious terms the circumstances of her demise. At times, as when this corpsey-vision appears in Annie’s bathtub, for example, the film starts to look like a backwoods version of What Lies Beneath, in which upscale housewife Michelle Pfeifer is similarly stalked by a dead girl in search of retribution. (And while we’re on the subject, why is it that dead people keep demanding vengeance be exacted for their deaths, by those hapless few who happen to be able to see them?) Annie’s encounters with the dead body, which appears in various states of undress and bruisedness, are pretty awful, but because they’re so plainly laid out—as mini-narratives, as upsetting images—their meanings are not so hard to decipher.
From here the film, written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, descends into a series of tricks, and the viewers with whom I saw the film knew them all. They groaned repeatedly—as when Annie walks into her house looking for an intruder or starts running water for a bath; when Donnie’s truck roars onto the scene (any scene); when Annie falls for the nice principal, Wayne (Greg Kinnear), who happens to be already engaged to Jessica; or when Annie’s vision provides her (and us) with a huge close-up of a pencil thunderously rolling off a desk. Let’s just say, there are few surprises.
It hasn’t always been this way for Sam Raimi. That he’s been tapped to direct Spiderman could mean that he’s in the grooming stages to be the next Bryan Singer or Tim Burton, that is, an offbeat, independent filmmaker who makes it to The Show, and then must decide how he means to handle it. Burton has resolutely maintained his strangeness; Singer seems happier as a big dog. If you forget the Costner business—which most everyone who’s seen it would rather do—it might be that Raimi can hang onto his own perverse sensibility, despite budget and “good taste” restrictions, which have always loomed, but which he has occasionally eluded. For all its cliches, The Gift does demonstrate a bit of that, in Annie’s efforts to deal with Buddy, perhaps most deftly, when Buddy rescues one of her boys from a threatening Donnie by smashing the latter’s truck with a crowbar, then inviting Donnie to shoot him in the head—all while the boy looks on, aghast, plainly more frightened by Buddy than Donnie. This is flat-out eerie, and reminds me a bit of one of the most memorable scenes in all of moviedom, the ingenious and completely lunatic scene in Evil Dead II where Campbell battles with his own demon-possessed, bloody hand. Anyone who can imagine such a thing deserves not just a dedicated fanbase, but some serious free rein on future projects.