Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Not Exactly a Christmas 'Gift'

"Miss Wilson, I don't believe in what you do. I'll just be straight with you. Not only that, I don't like it. But, we've got to the end of the road of our investigation ... and looked under every rock there is to look under ... and we'd like you to tell us what you can to help us."

Sheriff (J.K. Simmons)

"The Gift," which premiered 15 years ago today, seemed to slip in beneath most people's radars. That is a shame because it really was a suspenseful tale.

Many of those who went to see it during the Christmas season in 2000 may well have expected to see a holiday–oriented tale if all they knew of it was its title. Boy, were they in for a surprise.

Cate Blanchett played a young widow, a psychic who did card readings for people in a small town in Georgia. In the early minutes of the movie, audiences must have been certain that Hilary Swank, who played a victim of spousal abuse, would be likely to turn up dead. Instead it was Katie Holmes, the fiancee of Greg Kinnear who was having torrid affairs with apparently everyone, who turned up missing.

It was enough to give anyone a headache — and then there was Blanchett's long–dead grandmother (Rosemary Harris) who popped up to remind her to trust her instincts.

There were enough creepy things going on to make sure everyone knew this wasn't a Christmas movie.

Now before I proceed, I should try to address what I see as a conflict in terminology. I said that Blanchett played a psychic although I suppose when I was a child I would have called her a fortune teller because questions about the future are what card readings always seemed to me to be about when I was growing up. You know, questions like will I fall in love and get married? or will I be successful? Magic 8–Ball stuff.

And I gather that Blanchett's character did her share of that with many of her clients, but the clients the audience saw were always having their pasts revealed — Swank's abuse as well as the abuse of another character, Buddy (Giovanni Ribisi), who had been abused as a child by his father.

My point is that I'm not sure if psychic and fortune teller mean the same thing or different things.

It is in the area of revelation of the past that I associate the term psychic — if only because I hear from time to time of psychics being brought on to help criminal investigators who have run into a wall in their probes into disappearances.

That is what happened in "The Gift."

Holmes' disappearance brought Blanchett into the apparently stalled investigation. She had a vision of Holmes being attacked and killed and then thrown into a pond on property belonging to Swank's husband (Keanu Reeves), and that led to Reeves' arrest and eventual conviction after Holmes' body was retrieved from his pond.

This brings me to one of my quibbles with the movie. It appeared that Reeves was arrested, then almost immediately put on trial. I know the Constitution guarantees every defendant the right to a speedy trial, but that is much faster than the legal process usually works.

(Speaking as someone who, like many novice reporters, covered police and fire beats, things don't happen as quickly as they seem to happen in the movies.)

But Reeves' character wasn't guilty, as Blanchett learned in another vision, and she went to the prosecutor (Gary Cole) to ask him to reopen the case. She couldn't see who the killer was, she said, but there seemed to be no shortage of prospects, including Swank, who knew that Holmes had been sleeping with her husband and, consequently, "she deserved what she got."

Such can be the moralizing posture of a small Southern town.

When I saw "The Gift," I was inclined — and I still am — to think of it as being successful in its bid to be suspenseful, in no small part because of the cast that was assembled. Otherwise, though, I kind of felt it became a rather predictable whodunnit in the second half of the movie.

Film critic Roger Ebert was more glowing in his praise. "The movie is ingenious in its plotting, colorful in its characters, taut in its direction and fortunate in possessing Cate Blanchett," Ebert wrote. "If this were not a crime picture (if it were sopped in social uplift instead of thrills), it would be easier to see the quality of her work. By the end, as all hell is breaking loose, it's easy to forget how much everything depended on the sympathy and gravity she provided in the first two acts."

There is truth in that.

Blanchett's character provided a balance in the telling of the story — at one point Buddy told her she was the "soul" of the town, and I think the same could be said of her influence on the movie.

But what many people — mostly, I suppose, adolescent males — found and still find memorable about "The Gift" was it contained Holmes' first nude scene.

Ebert's opinion notwithstanding, the movie received no recognition from the Oscars — doesn't seem to be too surprising. The Oscars seldom give nominations to comedies or supernatural thrillers.

That doesn't mean, of course, that they aren't worthy of recognition. It's merely a long–standing Academy bias.