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[whitespace] Cate Blanchett and Greg Kinnear
Looking for Mr. Badbar: Cate Blanchett and Greg Kinnear try to figure out what happened to a missing woman in 'The Gift.'

Gothic 'Gift'

Cate Blanchett's gift for acting saves Sam Raimi's routine mystery thriller

By Jim Aquino

A FEW YEARS AGO, filmmaker Sam Raimi tried to bring his macabre sense of humor to network TV with the twisted soap American Gothic, about the supernatural goings-on in a South Carolina town run by devilish, perverted Sheriff Lucas Buck, played delightfully by Gary Cole (the Steppenwolf Theatre veteran best known as Mike Brady in the Brady Bunch features). It's a shame this strange and witty show--think The Andy Griffith Show on acid--never caught on with viewers as did Raimi's other series at the time, the banal Hercules: The Legendary Journeys. In his latest film, the supernatural whodunit The Gift, Raimi revisits the Southern gothic settings of American Gothic but with a little less of the wit that made the series intriguing and with a rather routine mystery supplied by screenwriters Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson. (Cole even pops up here as a D.A.)

The film is more successful as a character study, with Cate Blanchett giving a sturdy and crafty performance as the film's amateur-sleuth heroine. Blanchett's Annie Wilson is a recently widowed mother of three boys struggling to make a living in fictional Brixton, Ga., by doing psychic readings for her troubled neighbors, including a suicidal, bipolar car mechanic (Giovanni Ribisi) and a housewife (Hilary Swank) abused by her drunken husband (Keanu Reeves). (The scenes between Annie and her boys are like the awkward exchanges between mother and son in You Can Count on Me; Blanchett effectively conveys both her compassion for her sons and her unhappiness as a single mother.)

When the town slut, socialite Jessica King (Katie Holmes), mysteriously disappears, the woman's fiancé (Greg Kinnear) and her father (Chelcie Ross) ask Annie to use her hereditary psychic gifts to find her. Annie begins having unnerving visions of Jessica's murder, but typical of these supernatural thrillers, she can never quite get a fix on her assailant's identity. Meanwhile, someone may be trying to silence Annie, who also has to cope with neighbors who are convinced by Reeves' bully that she's an evil witch.

Raimi's shock-cut nightmare sequences are economical and effective in this age of showy digital effects and hackneyed, Seven-inspired freak-show scares. Much less enjoyable is the way Thornton and Epperson dumb down Blanchett's supposedly gifted character to the intelligence level of a teenage slasher-movie victim and make her do the most insipid things to track down the killer. Ribisi, good as the doomed medic in Saving Private Ryan, gives a tiresome turn as a drooling simpleton; he's played this role before, not once, but several times, in guest spots on both Friends and The X-Files and as a retarded teen in The Other Sister. His unintentionally funny fits of rage remind me of an old Martin Short routine about a bad children's folksinger with multiple personalities (and his dialogue during these moments is as comprehensible as Sylvester Stallone's climactic speech in First Blood).

Also unintentionally hilarious is Reeves, whose current attempts to stretch beyond his heartthrob image with roles like this one only demonstrate how limited his range is. When Reeves somberly threatened Blanchett with a voodoo doll, I almost lost it. It's a testament to Blanchett's performance that even in silly moments where she has to react to Reeves' woodenly delivered threats, we still believe in her gifts as an actor.

The Gift (R; 112 min.), directed by Sam Raimi, written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, photographed by Jamie Anderson and starring Cate Blanchett, Hilary Swank, Greg Kinnear and Keanu Reeves, opens Friday at selected theaters valleywide.

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From the January 18-24, 2001 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

Copyright © 2001 Metro Publishing Inc. Metroactive is affiliated with the Boulevards Network.

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