CINEMA SIGNALS

. "The Gift"

There are two presences in this film whose power rise above the material: one expected; one surprising. The first is Cate Blanchett ("Elizabeth"), who can be trusted to supply all the skills, taste and honesty to any role she takes on. The second is Keanu Reeves ("The Matrix", "Speed", "The Watcher"), who reaches a level here we've never seen.

The small town of Brixton, Georgia has a social worker/psychotherapist fronting as a psychic/fortune teller (Blanchett). Or, is it the other way around? In any case, this is an occupation that makes Annie Wilson, a widowed single mother of three sons, a suspicious oddity or worse in a small town where mostly women flock to her "readings" in which she "sees" past events and is a conduit to their dead loved ones. Except for one exception, she's tolerated by the cynics with bemused smiles.

Those who come to her for "readings" run the gamut, but include a few who are badly in need of counseling, whether from the grave or from a shrink. Among those is Buddy Cole (Giovanni Ribisi), a greatly disturbed, sometimes good-hearted town mechanic with a mind-wrenching past; and the earnest school administrator Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear) in love with the widely flirtatious Jessica King (Katie Holmes) whose idea of commitment has nothing to do with monogamy.

Another is Valerie Barksdale (Hilary Swank), one of Wilson's most needful clients, a battered wife whose husband Donnie (Reeves) won't tolerate anyone else's influence over a wife he considers chattel. In typical bully fashion, he is soon at Wilson's door making threats if she continues to see his wife.

The trouble is, Valerie's problem is her husband and he won't go away. And, the only person who knows what she's suffering is psychic Wilson. Like a junkie pursuing her fix, she entreats Wilson to read for her, which we understand is commensurate to psychotherapy, a role the psychic accepts as part of her service. As though moved by the responsibilities imposed on her by her gift, especially toward the weakest and most vulnerable in her town, Wilson shirks Donnie's very convincing threats to her and her three sons, and agrees to a reading.

What Wilson sees in her cards and what she senses in Barksdale's destiny obliges her to advise that she leave her husband and seek shelter elsewhere. Not surprisingly (there are cliches here), Donnie finds out about it and makes good on his threats, breaking into the psychic's house, assaulting her and bonding with her sons so as to leave his danger to them implicit. Wilson calls the sheriff, ignoring the fact that he's one of Donnie's buddies. Needless to say, nothing is done about the complaint.

In a convenient plot turn at his point, the wealthy fiance of the school principal is missing and suspected to have been murdered. The sheriff's investigation comes up dry. At wit's end (a rather limited journey) he responds to pleas by others who better understand her "powers" to permit Wilson to employ them in order to "sense" or "see" the event so as to find the missing body and identify the perpetrator.

Her vision (just as hokey as TV's "The Profiler" imagery) points the finger at Donnie, who is just powerful and brutal enough to have done such a thing. Plus, he has no alibi. So, in a crowd-pleasing courtroom scene, he's convicted and we can all go home. Only the movie, and the twists, aren't over. And, even if you've figured out that he may not have done it, the way it spins out has enough tension and mystery to keep you in your seat, a credit to director Sam Raimi (next up for "Spider Man") and his horror film background.

Writing credits go to Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson who previously collaborated on the brilliant 1991 film, "One False Move".

Hilary Swank, in the first film portrayal we've seen her do since her astounding female/male "Boys Don't Cry" role, does herself credit here as the frightened Southern battered wife. Blanchett, as accomplished an actress as you'll find anywhere on the globe, here turns her natural Aussie speech into authentic Southern dialect (perhaps benefitting by hearing co-screenwriter Billy Bob Thornton and others on the set). But the more important achievement is in the complex senses of a woman whose worldly experiences include venturing into dimensions most of us don't sense.

The biggest and most unexpected reward of the film is Keanu Reeves. Who thought they'd see this heretofore limited leading man create a character so genuinely scary? While he's got a resume full of laconic leading men, both evil and good, we've never seen these depths of anger and incipient violence in him nor suspected such capacity for terror. Maturity is wearing well as he becomes capable of impressive acting skills. If there were an Oscar category for best new acting by an established actor, he'd be a candidate for the award.

Rated O, for Otherworldly.

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                                      ~~  Jules Brenner  



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