It's only a thriller, but it's a classy one. Sam Raimi directs another winner.
Co-written by Billy Bob Thornton (yup, him) and Tom Epperson, rumour has it that this film was inspired by Billy Bob's mother's psychic abilities. Cate Blanchett plays Annie Wilson, a young widow with three children and The Gift. She lives on social security and a bit of fortune-telling on the side, bizarrely using Zener cards instead of Tarot or something. You know, Zener cards. Those things they use for ESP experiments - square, circle, star, wiggly lines, etc. But since she lives deep in Redneck County, Texas, perhaps that's a wise decision.
There are lots of good things about this movie, but I particularly loved its rednecks. They're dumb, they're fun and they're violent as hell. There's a sweet but creepy redneck played by the fabulously impressive Giovanni Ribisi as apparently retarded, inbred or both. (In fact it's worse.) There's a menacing wife-beater played by, wait for it, Keanu Reeves... and believe it or not, he's actually quite good! It doesn't take much range to delineate this kind of pondlife (one brain cell, two fists, one pick-up truck) and it kinda helps the character that Keanu ain't a rocket scientist. It's still weird casting, though. There's even a dumb girl redneck, who gets beaten up and cheated on by Keanu but won't leave him 'cos, y'know, he's her man.
Even our heroine's late husband must have been thick as a post. If your wife, who can make her living predicting the future, wakes up one morning from a precognitive dream and begs you not to go to work... DON'T GO.
The acting is rock-solid throughout, but no one even begins to steal the show from Cate Blanchett. I really like her as an actress. She's attractive without being pretty-pretty, she radiates intelligence and she's got guts. The Gift is her film, plain and simple, and she carries it with a strong, clear, grounded performance. Suddenly I want to see more of her movies.
As a thriller, it's clear some way off who did it. However that's not particularly important. This is a charming, convincing slice of small-town Texan life, complete with patronising cops and cheatin' women. I particularly liked the courtroom scenes, which had a sleepy grittiness that one doesn't find in the usual slick, glossy Ally McBeal-style courtroom nonsense. The supernatural element is what attracted my attention, but it's not portrayed in a sensational fashion. Instead it's just a part of Cate Blanchett's life.
If nothing else, Sam Raimi deserves plaudits for creating a "small-town psychic faced with murder mystery" film that's actually good. I'm trying to think of others... The Dead Zone, maybe, and I'd say this is as good as that more famous film, Walken, Cronenberg and King or no. It's quiet and small-scale, but this allows the film an intimacy that makes it sing. There's nothing dazzling or splashy here, just 111 minutes of well-told story.