In modern horror-thrillers, psychic visions are never very clear for those both blessed and cursed with the gift of premonition. The seer is assailed with glimpses of faces and bodies, symbolic tableaux, plus a shredded soundtrack of cries and whispers.
Of course, if the vision were crystal clear at the beginning, there would be no plot: the entire journey depends on slowly giving form to these inchoate scraps.
Italian maestro Dario Argento has forged a career from such delirious vision quests. Sam Raimi turns to the form in The Gift, and the results are very disappointing.
Annie (Cate Blanchett) is a kindly mystic who gives card readings for the local folk in a town in Georgia. She finds herself in a tougher, scarier league when good-time gal Jessica (Katie Holmes) disappears, suspected dead. Annie's reluctantly experienced visions lead the cops and a grieving fiancée to the property of Donnie (Keanu Reeves), a wife-beater who resents such meddling.
Raimi is (as they used to say in Westerns) a man without a star. The creative personality that once propelled his career – an outrageously boyish attachment to gory horror and surreal cartoons – has had trouble modulating itself into anything more mature. These days he stumbles from one eclectic project to the next, bringing flashes of great craftsmanship but little sense of deep engagement.
The Gift, accordingly, comes across as an opportunistic mish-mash of elements. The Sixth Sense (1999) will occur to many viewers – especially whenever Blanchett as the plucky single Mum recalls Toni Collette's similar role in that film. But there are also large doses of The X-Files in the visual style that alternates placid rural vistas with bright, loud shocks and apparitions.
Twin Peaks, too, leaves it mark on this confection – not least in the facile plot device that makes Jessica a wild, promiscuous lass in the mode of Laura Palmer. The more guys she managed to sleep with on her last day on earth, the more suspects there are for the story to toy with. The mechanics of this intrigue are extremely predictable.
The script, by the prolific team of Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson (One False Move, 1992), draws lines in all directions but never brings them together into a coherent, satisfying whole. Variations on the theme of family life – grieving widows, abused children, sadistic husbands and masochistic wives – fill up the movie but never make it resonate meaningfully. At least Reeves fares better as a beastly chap here than in the dreadful The Watcher (2000).
It is hardly Blanchett's fault that she is saddled with a monotonal role. Her extremely cinematic talent as an actor is evident in the way she can captivate the viewer with her tense stillness in tight shots. However, she is a performer who needs a variety of moods and situations to project.
For too much of The Gift, Blanchett is required simply to be sullen or scared. Raimi unwisely withdraws any humour from her character and invests it in a string of daffy supporting players.
© Adrian Martin May 2001