By all intensive purposes, "The Gift" shouldn't have been another overlooked picture. Released in January of this year, the 10m picture went on to gross a little over 11, but with the superb performances I'm suprised that word of mouth didn't drive it further. Cate Blanchett ("Elizabeth") stars as Annie Wilson, a widow and psychic who is just barely getting by in a small Southern town telling fortunes to support her children.
The people in the small town either are indifferent to what Annie does or don't support her, thinking that she's a fraud. Chief against her is the abusive Donnie (Keanu Reeves), the wife of Valerie(Hillary Swank) who has been one of her clients - he thinks that she's been trying to break up his marriage. Furious, he begins to taunt Annie. Meanwhile, her children are not faring well at school and Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear) is the principal that she finds herself often meeting with, either in town or at school. There's a slight hint of a spark between the two, but he's set to marry Jessica King (Katie Holmes).
Things don't go as planned though, as Jessica suddenly dissapears. The police, who have been previously reluctant to help Annie, suddenly turn to her and her visions to help solve the mystery. Director Sam Raimi ("A Simple Plan", the "Evil Dead" series) pulls things together quite wonderfully throughout the picture - the movie starts out providing a fine sense of gothic atmosphere and character building, then begins to slowly - but surely - pull up the tension.
Raimi is also fortunate enough to have a stellar cast, many of whom should have recieved some sort of Oscar consideration (the picture did get a short release right before 2000 ended), but didn't. Blanchett has usually been in period pieces, but several recent roles such as "Pushing Tin" and "The Gift" prove that she can play a wider range of characters. Although "Tin" didn't have her do much, "The Gift" has her carry most of the movie and she does so quite well, in a riveting and engaging performance. Reeves actually is uncharacteristically frightening as an evil, mean-spirited character. Also strong are several other performances; Greg Kinnear turns in a warm, kind performance as the principal and it's a nice departure from his usual slimeball character that he's been playing for the past several roles. Giovanni Ribisi is also strong as a mentally disturbed repairman who has befriended Annie. The role could have been overplayed, but Ribisi does a fine job. Last, but not least, Katie Holmes turns in a flirty, intense performance in her few scenes.
Once the film goes into the second half and becomes a courtoom thriller, the movie isn't quite as successful as the film becomes more of a standard example of the genre, albeit with some interesting twists as the culprit in this whodoneit is in question throughout the second half. Overall, "The Gift" isn't quite as strong as Raimi's "A Simple Plan" - although he is again working with excellent actors here, he doesn't have quite as strong material to work with as Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson's screenplay is good, but not great. I will certainly give credit to Raimi though, for taking this story and this caliber of actors and making a movie that is mostly quite successful.
VIDEO: "The Gift" is another one of Paramount's recent releases that seemingly show an increasing level of quality than their already fine efforts. Although not without a few minor blemishes, their 1.85:1 anamorphic transfer for the title looked excellent. Sharpness and detail were both stellar, as the film looked consistently crisp and very well-defined, with nice depth and clarity to the image.
Really, the only flaw worth noting that I noticed - and this could have been an intentional choice - is that a few scenes displayed a minor to mild amount of grain. The print looked clean with the exception of a couple of tiny marks that popped up on occasion. The picture seemed free of pixelation and edge enhancement.
Colors appeared natural and clean, with warm tones and occasional richer colors. Flesh tones (although Blanchett always seems to look a little pale) appeared accurate and natural, as well. Aside from a few minimal flaws, another very nice effort from Paramount.
SOUND: "The Gift" is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1. The audio sticks to what one might expect for this kind of drama, with a few minor exceptions. The movie often falls back to a "mono" character as it focuses on the dialogue between characters, yet there are certainly quite a few scenes that open up the sound, although very slightly so. The outdoor scenes do have some slight ambience (birds, etc), but this was a tiny bit inconsistent as some of these scenes presented more detail than others. The only other element that opened up the sound was when Annie has visions, as the surrounds provide some creepy effects. These scenes are short though, and don't get too intense with the sound effects. Audio quality seemed quite pleasant, as the ambient sounds sounded natural and convincing, and dialogue as well as music came through clearly and crisply.
MENUS:: Paramount has recently been providing more and more animated menus lately, but the main menu that they have provided for "The Gift" is one of their best efforts. A spooky, "Blair Witch"-esque animated menu, it's a perfect way to open the disc.
EXTRAS: As director Sam Raimi was likely busy filming "Spider Man", he was not able to contribute supplemental material for the DVD release. What is included is listed below.
A Look Inside: The Gift: Another of Paramount's "interview clip" supplements, this runs about 10 minutes in length. Thankfully, like some of the other interview montages that they've included on recent DVDs, it focuses more on providing information (if rather general) about the production and stories from the set. Raimi, as well as most of the rest of the cast, is interviewed.
Also: Theatrical trailer and "Furnace Room Lullaby" music video by Neko Case.
Final Thoughts: "The Gift" is an entertaining and exceptionally well-acted picture by director Sam Raimi and a terrific cast. Although supplemental materials are understandably thin, Paramount still provides fine audio/video quality for this release. Recommended.