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Wednesday, June 20, 2001

Things go creep in the night

The Gift

Rating: * * * 1/2 Director: Sam Raimi Running time: 119 minutes Language: English Now showing at Tokyu Bunka Kaikan and other theaters

After a career in directing splatterific horror and postmodern comic-book flicks ("Evil Dead," "Darkman," "The Quick and the Dead"), Sam Raimi seemed to have only two filmmaking modes: over-the-top and more over-the-top. However, with "A Simple Plan" in 1999 he proved he had range, delivering a fine-tuned suspense film that drew its strength from the subtleties of performance and a believable Joe Sixpack realism.

Cate Blanchett in Sam Raimi's "The Gift"

A large part of "A Simple Plan's" success -- and it was Raimi's first mainstream hit -- was the linchpin performance of Billy Bob Thornton. He's back collaborating with Raimi again as a screenwriter on "The Gift," a Southern supernatural thriller with an all-star cast. "The Gift" is no shocker, a la Raimi's earlier zombie flicks, but it sure is creepy, and if this one doesn't send a chill down your spine, then check your pulse, friend -- you must already be dead. (And if that's the case, please proceed to Cinema 2, where they're showing "Hannibal," a film made for zombies.)

Set in one of those all-too-small towns on the edge of a mist-shrouded swamp, where everybody knows everybody else's business, "The Gift" focuses on a single mother named Annie (Cate Blanchett), a tarot-card reader who works more like a low-rent psychoanalyst. Half of what she gives her clients is nothing more than a little sympathy; characters like the mentally ill grease-monkey Buddie (Giovanni Ribisi) or the white-trash battered-wife Valerie (Hilary Swank) certainly seem to need it.

Every now and then, though, Annie is hit out of the blue with a startling premonition. One biggie comes when she's picking up her son from school: The principal (Greg Kinnear) is introducing Annie to his fiancee (Katie Holmes) when suddenly she starts seeing things that aren't there -- impending signs of death. Something very bad is going to happen, but what can Annie do?

She tries to shake it off, but sure enough, someone disappears, and foul play is suspected. The local cops hit a dead end and, skeptical though they may be, come to Annie and her tarot cards for help. The cards (and the real-life facts) point to Valerie's abusive husband, Donnie (Keanu Reeves), a violent redneck with a short temper. But Annie's motives are suspect too: Donnie has been threatening her for advising Valerie to leave him, and he claims that Annie is a "witch" who's trying to frame him. Meanwhile, Annie's premonitions get worse and begin to include her own violent death . . .

"The Gift" is a testament to the power of craft: Look at it closely, and the film seems a bit of a retread, running through a heap of Deep South cliches (many of them recycled tropes from Thornton's own "Sling Blade") with a bit of "Sixth Sense"-derived ESP thrown in. Actually, the script is a reworking of an episode from the American TV series "American Gothic."

Yet Raimi is such a master of his medium that this film rises above its material at every turn. His dream sequences are surreal and intensely eerie; Maya Deren would have loved the moment where Annie picks a white flower and it suddenly withers and turns black as death. For most of the film Raimi relies little on shock, and instead builds this vast ominous vibe that rolls in like distant thunder.

Inspired casting adds another level of pleasure: Cate Blanchett, wan and ethereal, is perfect as someone drifting in and out of the spirit world. Even more fun are the actors cast against type: Keanu Reeves, for once, is truly impressive, displaying a cruel, brutish dark side, which explodes in terrifying fits of rage, while perpetual nice guy Giovanni Ribisi gets the "Sling Blade" role as a half-sympathetic/half-scary mental patient, obsessed with a mysterious "blue diamond."

Most potent of all is Raimi's understanding of the mechanics of terror; the way he cuts one of Annie's premonitions is a textbook example of tension and timing. As hallucinatory water flows through her halls, Annie heads toward the bathroom, where something is obviously wrong; the camera shows her hand slowly opening the door, and then -- bang! -- it cuts to a shot from the inside of the room, showing not what's in there, but just a view of Annie peering through the door.

You exhale for a moment, and then, just when your guard is down, Raimi gets you. Better be holding your popcorn tight.

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