The Gift

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When I settled in to watch “The Gift,” the new thriller from director Sam Raimi, I was told it was 140 minutes long. Thus, when we reached the 105-minute mark and the film seemed not just to be ending, but to be ending in an extremely disappointing and fraudulent manner, I thought, “Oh, good. Raimi and his fine troupe of thespians have treated me right so far, what with the excellent performances, engrossing story line and smart directing. Surely this hokey ending I’m seeing is meant to throw us off, to make us THINK the movie is ending like any generic thriller would, when really there’s still another half-hour in which to turn the genre on its ear and wrap things up in a manner more befitting the high quality of this motion picture.”

Turns out the person who told me 140 minutes was wrong. It’s 111 minutes, and that awful ending — the one that’s anti-climactic, rushed-at and laughably predictable — well, that’s the ending.

Up to that point, “The Gift” is a superb, tense film marked by subtlety (except when it’s creepier to be unsubtle) and moderation. The incomparable Cate Blanchett plays Annie Wilson, a young Georgia widow with three little boys who is still trying to put the pieces back together after the tragic death of her husband a year earlier. She lives hand-to-mouth, earning some money by using the titular gift: She has E.S.P. The little town of Brixton is full of superstitious folk, and they gladly pay a few dollars here and there to have Annie give them “readings” with a deck of cards designed for that purpose.

One of her clients and friends is Valerie Barksdale (Hilary Swank, looking like white trash for the new millennium), who is constantly being roughed up by her brutish husband Donnie (Keanu Reeves). Donnie, a good Christian fellow (except for being a racist and a wife-beater), insists Annie has the devil in her; Annie encouraging Valerie to leave Donnie just makes him madder, and he threatens pretty much everyone.

Meanwhile, the local school principal, Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear), is about to marry slutty debutante Jessica King (Katie Holmes), who in turn is already cheating on him. Jessica goes missing, and the local authorities reluctantly ask Annie to use her powers to help them find her. She does, and she leads them to a pond near Donnie Barksdale’s house. Jessica’s body is found in the pond, and Donnie is put on trial for the murder.

Obviously, it can’t be that cut-and-dried, and it isn’t. Annie continues to have dreams and visions — which Raimi directs with a keen eye and ear for what images and sounds will scare the pants off of us — and comes to the realization that she may know more about the killer after all. It’s great to see the horrible Donnie incarcerated, of course — but what if he didn’t do it?

Alongside all this is a story with Annie’s simple friend Buddy (Giovanni Ribisi), who trusts her psychic advice to the letter and who has some serious family problems. It was during a particularly dire and disturbing scene with Buddy that I realized this subplot probably was not going to tie in adequately with the main story. And I was right, though not because the movie didn’t try to force a connection.

This is one of the best-acted films I’ve seen in a while. Reeves does an unusually adequate job, and even Greg Kinnear, who is normally too smarmy and oily, hands in an impressive performance. Blanchett is right up there, as are Ribisi and Swank. Kudos to Raimi for coaxing nuanced, careful performances from all of them; if you listen, you’ll catch clues to what will happen next based just on how certain characters say things.

But oh, that ending. It’s amazing how much impact a few minutes can have. The movie stays on a straight, true course right up until the end, when it detours into Generic Land. Too bad Annie couldn’t have foreseen that disaster and acted to prevent it.

B- (; R, frequent harsh profanity, strong violence, sexual vulgarity.)

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