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She knows what evil lurks in whose heart

'The Gift' a satisfying scare


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Someone is missing

Blanchett shines


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(CNN) -- "The Gift" is directed by Sam Raimi and written by Tom Epperson and Academy Award winning screenwriter Billy Bob Thornton. The film stars Academy nominee Cate Blanchett, Academy Award nominee Greg Kinnear and Academy Award winner Hilary Swank, along with Keanu Reeves, Giovanni Ribisi and Katie Holmes.

This also marks the reteaming of Raimi and Thornton, whose last project, "A Simple Plan" (1998), earned Thornton another Oscar nomination.

That combination of talents makes a winning pedigree, sure, but can this dog hunt?

The answer is yes, if you like melodramatic, gothic potboilers. There are chills and thrills here, but don't expect this to be a teen-scream flick.

"The Gift" is a story about redemption, wrapped in a gripping thriller -- a theme not unlike that in "A Simple Plan." Similarly, it embodies Raimi's fascination with real stories mixed in with mystery and the supernatural.

Blanchett stars as Annie Wilson, a widow with three sons struggling to survive in a small Georgia town. Annie has what her grandmother called a "gift," the ability to have psychic dreams and visions, so she helps support her family by giving readings to locals.

One of her main clients is an abused housewife, Valerie Barksdale (Swank), who refuses to leave her redneck husband, Donnie (Reeves). Another is tormented car mechanic Buddy Cole (Ribisi), who harbors a horrifying secret.

To some, Annie is the town joke, a con-artist at best. To others, she's evil, perhaps in league with the devil. Annie, for her part, is just trying to keep food on the table while struggling with guilt over her husband's accidental death -- a death she feels she should have seen coming.

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Another thing she should have seen coming was the violent reaction Donnie would have upon learning that Annie was advising Valerie to leave before he beat her to death. In a terrifying confrontation in front of her sons, Donnie threatens to kill Annie if she doesn't stop seeing his wife.

On the other side of the tracks is the rich, beautiful, wild and willful Jessica King (Holmes), who is engaged to marry the local elementary school's mild-mannered principal, Wayne Collins (Kinnear).

Someone is missing

Unknown to Collins, Jessica is like the town's doorknob -- everyone's had a turn -- and she's having an affair with the quick-fisted Donnie.

Threats, counter-threats, illicit sex, deception and lies all come to a head one steamy night when Jessica disappears. Then, after all other efforts fail, her father, the highly skeptical local sheriff, (J.K. Simmons) and her frantic fiancÚ all show up at Annie's door seeking help.

When Annie reluctantly begins having dreams about the missing woman -- and starts seeing visions of her murder taking place -- things heat up as she simultaneously becomes the seeker of truth and the killer's next target.

The plot really twists and turns from that point, but the killer's identity is fairly easy to determine simply by the process of elimination as the climax edges closer and closer. Despite that, Raimi's skillful direction, the way he positions the camera, and his brilliant pacing keep things jumping almost until the final frame.

Blanchett shines

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The acting, for the most part, is excellent.

Blanchett's performance is the glue that holds this film together. Her ability to meld into each role she plays is truly amazing, and this film is no exception. Annie goes on a frightening journey of discovery, and Blanchett keeps this complex character real every step of the way.

Swank's character doesn't give her much room to move. Valerie is pretty much the same at the end of the film as she was at the beginning. Kinnear is getting better and better, and he's pretty good in this extremely pivotal role as the principal.

Ribisi is poignant while giving one of his patented lovable-but-slightly-psycho performances as one of Annie's clients who is tottering on the edge of sanity.

As for Reeves, he never has been, and never will be, a great actor; in fact, he's usually embarrassingly bad. However, some directors seem to work better with Reeves than others, and Raimi is in the latter category He's managed to get a performance out of Reeves that only occasionally sounds like he's reading his lines from the back of a cereal box.

This story is loosely based on the life of Thornton's mother, a reputed psychic (yes, she did predict her boy would be successful in Hollywood). The setting of a small Southern town is perfect for this Arkansas-born actor/writer who routinely touts his good-ol'-boy upbringing.

Co-writer Epperson is a childhood friend, and he, too, knows the territory well. (He also co-wrote another film with Thornton, 1996's "A Family Thing.")

A stellar performance by Blanchett and Raimi's gift for storytelling takes what could have been just a gothic-style soap opera, albeit one set in a swamp, and lifts it up a notch or two. What viewers get is a fairly compelling whodunit with mystic overtones.

"The Gift" opens nationwide on Friday. Rated PG-13. 110 minutes.



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