By Rebecca Sills
Be warned, Dawson's Creek fans. The Joey you know, played by the pouty Katie Holmes, has moved on to bigger, better, and indeed more arousing things. In line with the formulaic timeline of any young T.V. star breaking onto the silver screen (think Alyssa Milano in Poison Ivy II, or the other WB babe, Sarah Michelle Gellar in Cruel Intentions), Miss Holmes has blatantly juxtaposed her virginal TV character with that of a sexually hungry character in Sam Raimi's horror/supernatural thriller film, The Gift. Immediately introduced as the rich girl gone naughty, Jessica King is everything Joey would look down upon with big bold vocabulary words. She sleeps around, and lies about it. She has sex in public bathrooms, and goes slumming with anyone who's willing. And then of course, there is the nudity. In the film's last twenty minutes or so, Holmes does exactly what she's been aching to do for years now to prove she's hit the big leagues. She shows her breasts. And presumably, it is for "the sake of art." Indeed, in a film that often seems contrived and predictable, Holmes' nude scene is well needed.
But, if you are to believe that the shot is not for art's sake, as I cynically do, than you will at least agree- it's for the film's sake. By film's end, The Gift comes across more like a decent Thursday night rental, than a thriller packed with A-list, Oscar-nominated actors. Holmes' presence is a nice treat for the well-deserving who have made it up to these last moments. Set amongst the drooping willows of Georgia and the white trash of legends, The Gift is initially the thriller it promises. When Jessica King is found to be missing, after yet another evening of promiscuity, the town's psychic reader, played by Cate Blanchett, is called to help with the case. What is then revealed is the often clichéd-storyline of any redneck film, although this time Raimi is able to portray both the characters and the stories as vividly haunting. Generously borrowing from the grand maestro of modern horror, Raimi intertwines murder, fortune telling, sex, wife beating, and heavy southern accents with scenes right out of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining." When Blanchett's character, Annie Wilson, sleeps she sees eerie images that are often as innocuous as a fiddler on a pond. And yet with the same skill that Kubrick uses to convince us that a nude woman in a bathtub is horrifying, Raimi successfully creeps the audience out with the drop of faucets and the fade of candles. In fact I applaud Raimi for offering some genuine fright into theatres that have most recently been contaminated with Scream sequels and Jennifer Love Hewitt films. On the promise of fear, Raimi delivers.
By the film's middle, you have been satisfyingly frightened, and left to wonder who exactly killed King… or perhaps, why didn't they do it sooner? But it is just at this point, where the suspected killer is convicted, that the film begins to prove more empty than fulfilling. By the film's middle, it comes of no shock to the audience that Keanu Reeves' character is convicted of the murder. Unfortunately, the film falls victim to the simplest of "whodunit" film errors. For the audience is definitely smart enough to realize that the real killer is not caught, with an hour of the film left to go. But this error is only one of many that become apparent. Not only is Giovanni Ribisi's mentally retarded character over-played, but Greg Kinnear is hard to take seriously in a horror film that takes itself seriously. And then there is the film's greatest fault. Anyone who pays slight attention to the film will be able to figure out who the killer is well before the filmmakers intended. And when the suspense is up, all that remains is a weak screenplay that a pre-"Sling Blade" Billy Bob Thorton must have written out of amateur boredom.
Although the film's weaknesses are evident, Blanchett, Hilary Swank, and even Reeves give impressive performances as perfectly exaggerated, and yet entirely believable Southern hicks. Blanchett is the film's greatest asset, striking up the theory that even a weak screenplay can't stop this actress who goes from the infamous Queen of England to an infamous Teller of Fortune, breathlessly. She is not only striking in her looks and performance, but she carries some of the film's weaker moments (the scenes with Kinnear feel awfully movie-of-the week.) Swank also gives a solid performance, and undoubtedly is the bravest of the actors, sporting a female mullet that just kills her natural good looks. And lastly, Reeves is worth noting. If not only because his character veers so far from those of his previous projects (Speed or The Matrix), but because the disgust and fear that his wife beating character invokes prove he's doing his job just right.
In hindsight, I have one suggestion to Raimi, as to why his film falls so short (by inches though, not feet). Perhaps Raimi should not have taken so many Oscar-nominated actors for the film. The fact that Cate Blanchett, Hilary Swank, Greg Kinnear and the star-power of Keanu Reeves support this film sets the expectations extremely high. I will be the first to admit that it was because of the film's star power, and a screenplay co-written by Thorton, that I expected to be blown away by The Gift. But at the same time, is this not the filmgoer's prerogative? After all, with such impressive actors, it seems it would be an extraneous effort to deliver mediocrity. And while The Gift is better than your average film this year, it is not as good as it should be. Raimi, whose next project is the long-awaited Spiderman, should take note that the direct corresponding emotion to a film's genre is not adequate enough. Horror films need to do more than cause a scare here or shriek of suspense there. Although well worth a visit to your local Blockbuster, The Gift is essentially a quality film of disappointment. In one of the film's opening scenes Holmes' character asks the foreseeing Blanchett in perfect southern twang, "You see something bad?" Two hours later, as I walked out of the theatre, I wasn't quite sure how to answer.