Signifying Wrapper

She knows what you did last summer: Cate Blanchett in <i>The Gift</i>

She knows what you did last summer: Cate Blanchett in The Gift

Everyone knows that January is national clearance month for movies. So why not give us a break on tickets to make second-rate holiday leftovers seem a little more desirable? The Gift, for instance, would be more of a draw at half-price--perhaps even regarded as a "must-see" in the same way that deeply discounted electric ties can become "must-haves."

Time was when Sam Raimi movies were eagerly anticipated. But the director of such gleeful originals as Darkman and Army of Darkness stooped to conquer with a maddeningly bland Kevin Costner baseball vehicle (For Love of the Game)--a descent that roughly parallels Gus Van Sant's slide from My Own Private Idaho to Finding Forrester. What gives? Neither guy seems like a sellout; it's more like their strange quests for respectability have mutated into mediocrity.

The Gift is Raimi's unimpeachable followup to his frozen suspense thriller, A Simple Plan, with an extra-added element of the supernatural. Annie (Cate Blanchett), a fresh-faced, newly widowed mother of three young boys, does card readings for townspeople on her back porch to supplement a meager social-security income. The film muddles psychic ability, tarot cards, and plain old visions, but no matter: For some clients--the mentally unstable Buddy (Giovanni Ribisi), or Valerie (Hilary Swank), regularly beaten by her husband--Annie is more a therapist than anything else. Still, even as she encourages them to confront their problems, she thwarts her oldest son's attempts to grieve for his dad.

Things quickly take a turn for the worse when Valerie's redneck husband Donny (Keanu Reeves) gets wind of her visits to Annie. Then the nubile town slut/rich girl Jessica (Katie Holmes, offering her fans a canny breast-baring), who's engaged to the squeaky-clean school principal (Greg Kinnear), goes missing and is feared dead. All Raimi forgot to do was to put an owl in a tree cooing, "Who? Who?" There's no shortage of suspects, including all the aforementioned characters, and Jessica's father calls upon Annie to provide insights into the disappearance. As clues come to her piecemeal, in dreams and waking visions, danger closes in like the fog in the creepy swamp outside of town.

The Gift's small-town Southern Gothic setting (courtesy of screenwriter Billy Bob Thornton, who starred in A Simple Plan) gives the movie instant atmosphere and the characters instant "character"--there's even a bunch of squirrel-huntin', donut-munchin' cops.

Blanchett puts on another impressive accent here, but, nervously wrapping her cardigans tightly around her, she lays the vulnerability on a little thick. Wouldn't someone endowed with "the gift" all her life be more forthright about it by now? I guess not: Like Dancer in the Dark, The Gift revels in putting a nothing-but-nice woman in peril as a direct result of her honest, if also somewhat naive, ways. Both Annie and Björk's Selma pass on the opportunity to set things straight; instead, they get blamed for others' transgressions and vilified in a courtroom--and Annie gets threatened and beat up to boot.

Well, at least Dancer had those wacky musical interludes. With The Gift, the underachieving Raimi even forgoes the relentless tension he built into A Simple Plan, unfolding the plot with no more pizzazz than a thriller on Lifetime. Sure, the film is replete with eerie sound effects, lurking shadowy figures, and a couple of restless ghosts; artsy dream sequences and special effects supposedly give you your money's worth on the big screen.

But they don't add up to anything larger, despite the briefest of nods to David Lynch. Raimi neatly avoids any swoon into the surreal, remaining safely within the bounds of acceptability---and predictability. Here's hoping he regresses to his old ways with the upcoming Spider-Man.