The truth is out there

Cate Blanchett sees scary things in the deep South.

PUT A PSYCHIC and a murder in the same movie and a few things become inevitable rather quickly: 1) The psychic will aid in the investigation; 2) because the psychic is not completely clairvoyant, the details of the murder will not become clear immediately; and 3) the psychic’s involvement in the case will put the psychic’s life in danger. That these elements play themselves out in this fashion (not entirely unlike an episode of Profiler) does not mean that The Gift is without its surprises or rewards.

The Gift

directed by Sam Raimi, screenplay by Billy Bob Thornton with Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, Hilary Swank, Keanu Reeves, Katie Holmes, and Greg Kinnear opens January 19 at Metro, Pacific Place, and others

More importantly, the real gift on display is Cate Blanchett’s—for carrying a film, and for conveying a difficult mixture of strength and vulnerability. Such beleaguered poise is reminiscent of her role in Elizabeth, an association she may never be rid of; for much of The Gift she’s entirely too radiant to be believable as the widowed townie psychic Annie Wilson against such a bleak, nowheresville Georgia backdrop. But the strange light she gives off works to center her in the narrative, a kind of murder mystery- cum- New Age allegory penned by Billy Bob Thornton.

Oscar-winner Hilary Swank (in full supermullet and tight jeans) is fittingly unremarkable as Valerie Barksdale, a timid battered wife who comes to Annie for readings. When Annie tells Valerie to leave her abusive husband, Donnie (Keanu Reeves), he threatens Annie and her children. Though Reeves, as the violent redneck wife-beater, is the film’s least convincing character, he provides sufficient menace to keep things moving and isn’t on-screen enough to ruin it. In stark contrast is Buddy (a supercharged Giovanni Ribisi), a volatile and deeply troubled young man whose self-destructive path toward the truth plays out as a sort of redemptive fable; his ongoing struggle forms the core of this film’s lesson—that the truth is not without terrible consequences, and that knowledge, whether prescient or long overdue, is at best a mediated blessing.

When the town debutante (a creepy, oversexed Katie Holmes) goes missing, her fianc頨played by the endearingly smarmy Greg Kinnear) seeks out Annie’s powers. Her visions lead police to Donnie’s pond, and then the real trouble begins. Here director Sam Raimi returns to his flair for horror that made the campy Evil Dead so strangely compelling. But it is the surprisingly humane and spiritual side of The Gift—bolstered by Blanchett’s and Ribisi’s superlative performances—that keeps it from feeling like just another episode of The X-Files.