Billy Bob Thornton co-wrote this psychological thriller, and it’s trash with class. Just say “murder in a small Southern town,” and I’m intrigued. Add a first-rate cast, led by Cate Blanchett, Keanu Reeves and Boys Don’t Cry Oscar winner Hilary Swank, and I’m hooked. Tell me that superbabe Katie Holmes plays the rich-vixen victim, given to quickies with married men and daring her school-principal fiance — Â¡ (Greg Kinnear) to fuck her on the spot when she bares her boobs in a country-club parking lot, and I’m ready to pre-order the DVD. Doesn’t bother me that the talent, including director Sam Raimi (A Simple Plan), seems overqualified to be slumming in a trashy backwater thriller that Billy Bob Thornton co-wrote (with Tom Epperson) before anyone ever heard of Sling Blade. The Gift delivers the lurid goods as a scary, sexy, twist-a-minute whodunit.
Blanchett stars as the psychically gifted Annie Wilson, a recent widow who supports her three young sons by giving card readings to neighbors in the small burg of Brixton, Georgia. Annie, tormented by guilt that she may have foreseen her husband’s death in a factory explosion, is determined to use her gift to help others. She devotes more time to strangers than to her family or to nurturing the attraction she feels for her son’s school principal, Wayne Collins (Kinnear), who is clearly unhappy being engaged to the trampy Jessica King (Holmes). Annie is the soul of the film, and Blanchett, rightly hailed as Cate the Great, plays her with hypnotic intensity. This Australian actress boasts an astonishing range that makes her believable and cogent, whether she’s portraying a British queen (Elizabeth) or a New Jersey housewife (Pushing Tin). Here, with a pitch-perfect Southern accent and eyes that open a window to the visions that haunt Annie, Blanchett is a radiant force of nature.
The police call Annie in to help when Jessica is reported missing. The town is alive with suspects, notably Buddy Cole (Giovanni Ribisi), a mechanic traumatized by an abusive childhood, and Donnie Barksdale (Reeves), a redneck who regularly beats his wife, Valerie (Swank, underused but vivid), and would like a piece of Annie when she advises Valerie to split on him. Ribisi, in danger of being typecast in mentally challenged roles (The Other Sister), should have passed on this one. But Reeves hits paydirt as Donnie; he gives a knockout performance, terrifying yet powerfully seductive in a way that explains why a woman might trust this bastard against her better instincts.
When Jessica’s body is found in the swamp in the wife-beater’s backyard, Donnie goes on trial for murder, with Annie as a damaging character witness. Annie holds firm on the stand even when defense lawyer Gerald Weems (Michael Jeter) mocks her gift as hocus-pocus. Real trouble ensues when Annie starts doubting her gift as well. As her visions turn more violent, she must face disturbing truths about herself and her own emotions. You may nail the murderer before the script gets around to it (Hint: Look for the star who has had the least to do), but Raimi’s flair for rich atmospherics — expertly abetted by cinematographer Jamie Anderson (Grosse Pointe Blank) and composer Christopher Young (Wonder Boys) — and a cast that goes full throttle hold you in thrall.