Directed by Sam Raimi. Starring Cate Blanchett, Keanu Reaves, Katie Holmes, Hilary Swank and Giovanni Ribisi.
Rating: 18

Probably best known for the gross-out trilogy of 'Evil Dead' zombie movies, director Sam Raimi’s latest offering looks promising enough on paper – it’s a low-key, character-driven thriller with a smattering of the paranormal. Written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, and starring relative newcomers Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, Katie Holmes and Hilary Swank, 'The Gift' is a well-intentioned, sombre exercise with none of the manic excesses of Raimi’s earlier efforts. Unfortunately, it's not particularly absorbing.

Set in the southern US town of Brixton, Georgia, 'The Gift' tackles all-too-familiar themes of domestic violence, fear of the unknown, and finally, redemption. Blanchett gives an edgy performance as Annie Wilson, a widowed mother of three who supports her family by giving psychic readings to members of the Brixton community. Her readings, which seem more like psychotherapy sessions, appear to be helping apologetic battered wife Valerie (Hilary Swank) and emotionally tormented car-mechanic Bobby (Giovanni Ribisi). Annie is a shy, reclusive woman of common decency – your typical clairvoyant. However, when the daughter of a prominent businessman disappears, she reluctantly agrees to assist with the investigation.

Raimi seems at his best when tackling mythical, comic-book sketches about the battle between good and evil. 'The Gift', however, concerns itself more with the hypocrisy of small-town American values than it does with the occult or supernatural, and this may well be the problem. Blanchett's role as the ‘soul of Brixton’ is hardly the subtlest of devices. The exploration of the darker side of human nature relies on predictable, stock characters: Keanu Reeves puts in a colour-by-numbers performance as a redneck thug; Katie Holmes puts-out as the promiscuous Daddy’s girl about town; there are close-minded police sheriffs, indifferent judges – it’s all been done many times before, and it’s all been done better.

Raimi, doggedly sticking to his guns as director-for-hire these days, does remarkably well with the material, however. The film is well-cast, there are some nice set pieces and the odd spooky hair-raiser, but the biggest let-down is the script. While Thornton and Epperson’s subject matter may seem overly familiar, it’s really 'The Gift's plodding pace that kills the movie: a long, drawn-out first hour, a tedious courtroom sequence midway, and a ‘whodunnit’ plot all leave the audience at least two steps ahead of the game. 'The Gift' offers little insight into what the film pre-supposes itself to be about: neither the nature of Blanchett’s 'gift' nor the psychological complexities of its supporting cast are explored in any detail. It is competent and mildly-diverting, sure; but it is certainly not worth making any special effort for.

Nicholas Kelly