Cate Blanchett stars as Annie Wilson, a widow and mother of three boys living in a backwoods southern town, where she's known as a fortune teller. She has a gift which runs in her family, and it enables her to read tarot cards and have premonitory dreams and visions. The poster's tagline goes "The only witness to the crime was not even there". It gives you a good idea of what the film's about, but it also makes it sound like a B-movie, which it isn't. It's a mostly by-the-numbers thriller, yes, but a surprisingly thoughtful, effective one. I like how it takes its time to quietly present the characters instead of rushing for the scares. We see Annie at home, with her kids. We see her giving psychic readings bordering on social therapy, like when she recommends to battered wife Valerie (Hillary Swank) that she leaves her husband. We then follow her as she goes to speak with school principal Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear) after one of her kids' been in a fight, and while in the guy's office she meets his pretty young fiancée Jessica King (Katie Holmes). Later she drives her car to the garage and leaves it with mechanic Buddy (Giovanni Ribisi), a confused mechanic who has major issues with his father.
Thus starts the movie, involving us with well drawn characters who we quickly care about. Before long, though, we meet a guy who no one could root for, wife beating redneck extraordinaire Donnie Barksdale (Keanu Reeves), who doesn't like his woman going to see a "Satan worshipper". And then things really heat up when Jessica goes missing and Annie has visions of what happened to her... Ok, so the plot isn't strikingly original (it's quite similar to "Stir of Echoes", another surprisingly powerful recent supernatural thriller) and the characters are stereotypes (cue the wife beater, cue the town slut, cue the grumpy sheriff...), but in spite of all that the movie works, it truly does. It grips you from the very first images and never lets go. The people and situations explored by screenwriters Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson (who also wrote "One False Move" and "A Family Thing" together) might be clichés, but they stomp these familiar grounds with enough care and skill to make the story interesting and not quite like others that dealt with some of the same things.
Furthermore, as is often the case with genre entries, it doesn't even matter all that much if the plot is predictable. I guessed who the killer was early, but I was still intensely eager to see things unfold. As Hitchcock once said, if two people are sitting around and talking, and then there's an explosion, it's not nearly as scary as if we know there's a bomb under the table and they don't, and they just keep babbling while time is running out. Likewise, for all we know (or think we know) through "The Gift", the film still manages to remain very tense and unsettling.
You have to give credit to Sam Raimi, who's long been one of my favorite directors. His style here is much more restrained than in the "Evil Dead" trilogy and the film doesn't quite have the depth of "A Simple Plan", but this his still some of his best work. The creepy dream sequences, the nifty trial scene and the climax are particularly well crafted, but what's the most impressive is the great work Raimi gets out of his cast. Blanchett is strong in the lead, playing convincingly haunted, Swank nails the self-depreciation and self-deception of marital abuse victims even though she has little screen time, and Kinnear is easy to like, so you feel bad when he loses his soon-to-be-wife. But that was to be expected, that's an Oscar winner and two nominees you got there after all.
What's more astounding is how Raimi takes two actors not known for being particularly good and gets riveting performances out of them. Keanu Reeves, the 'Whoa' dude, he of the signature wooden delivery, well in "The Gift", he's the most menacing presence there is. As a total white-trash brute, he steals every scene he's in, nearly scaring his co-stars off the screen... except Giovanni Ribisi, with whom he shares the film's most memorable scene. Ribisi's the other actor who's surprisingly good in the film. I still thought of him as Phoebe's dopey brother in "Friends". Not anymore I don't! As the conflicted, suicidal Buddy, he's both compelling and terrifying.
"The Gift" doesn't break much new ground, but it's well written, well directed and very, very well acted, and it's got nice cinematography and a good score. And if you're not yet convinced, it's also the feature film debut of Katie Holmes' breasts, which are truly a marvel to be seen. If only for that, the film is a must-see!