Ghostly Gift

Brixton, Georgia, is a land of languid drawls and ragged willow trees, of pillared mansions that border gardens of good and evil, and of clapboard houses flanked by sagging screen porches. And in one such house, the recently-widowed Annie Wilson reads cards for patrons of the paranormal.

This supernatural element meshes seamlessly with the brooding southern gothic of The Gift, the most involving psychothriller since M. Night Shyamalan's similarly muted The Sixth Sense. Directed by Sam Raimi, once again exercising the restraint that so clarified his A Simple Plan, the film accepts its heroine's psychic "gift" as blithely as she does-and, since Annie is played by Cate Blanchett, the resplendent Australian who invested Queen Elizabeth with quaking electricity in the 1998 biopic Elizabeth, so do we. Blanchett is like a sculptress; her film characters-the frumpy Jersey housewife of Pushing Tin, the fatuous American heiress in The Talented Mr. Ripley-are limned with cleanly chiseled strokes, and Annie is no exception: grave, honest, empathic, and fiercely protective of her three young sons.

Those qualities prove crucial when resident socialite Jessica King (a grown-up Katie Holmes) vanishes and the police descend upon Annie as a last resort, entreating her to play cosmic detective. To the horror of Jessica's fiancée Wayne (Greg Kinnear), Annie traces the girl's corpse to the pond of Donnie Barksdale, an abusive redneck-and red herring. Played by an unkempt and menacing Keanu Reeves (yes, that Keanu Reeves), Donnie immediately cries foul, while a cast of other suspects soon emerges, among them his put-upon wife (Hilary Swank), a slick local attorney (Raimi regular Gary Cole), and mechanic Buddy (Giovanni Ribisi, the poor man's Edward Norton, who looks like Boo Radley on amphetamines).

Before long, Annie's gift even implicates her in the crime, and exposes her household to unwelcome spectral phenomena-as during one jolting bathtub setpiece. (Of course, movie characters ought to know by now to avoid bathtubs-you never know when Glenn Close is going to pop out of one, or whether Michelle Pfeiffer is submerged within). Throughout The Gift, in fact, Raimi trots out a series of likewise familiar gimmicks-candles snuffed by a coiling breeze, an abrupt lurch into fast-forward that accelerates a demonic fiddle concerto, insistent heartbeats percolating beneath the score. As with A Simple Plan, his devastating, criminally underrated 1998 thriller starring Billy Bob Thornton (who co-authored The Gift), Raimi massages tension to excruciating degrees while staging violence sparingly-and the ratio is effective.

Only in its final moments does this film relent, with a pair of twists as slack and underwhelming as the preceding hundred minutes are terse and exquisitely paced. Until that point, though, The Gift is as moody and atmospheric a horror film as you're likely to see all year. As Keanu might rave, "Whoa."


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