The Gift (2000)
I'm a huge fan of Cate Blanchett, who I think is the best actress working today, and I present 'The Gift' as evidence to support this claim. It's a supernatural drama / thriller that was released seven years ago, and it's also the last non-Spider-Man movie directed by Sam Raimi!
Blanchett plays Annie Wilson, a single mother of three living in a small Southern US town who lost her husband in a factory fire a year before the story begins. Annie has supernatural psychic powers - the titular 'Gift' - and has been making ends meet as the town fortune teller. In the first act we're introduced to the people she interacts with in town; this includes a battered wife, Valerie Barksdale (Hillary Swank), her redneck husband Donnie (Keanu Reeves), her mentally unbalanced friend Buddy (Giovanni Ribisi), her close friend Linda (Kim Dickens), school principal Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear) and his fiancée Jessica (Katie Holmes). Donnie takes offense when Annie tells Valerie to leave him; he begins to harass her and her kids, but this is only the start of her problems. Jessica disappears and Annie is co-opted by the Chief of Police (J. K. Simmons) to try and help them out. Her visions lead them to Jessica's body and the discovery directly implicates Donnie Barksdale in the murder. In the midst of Donnie's trial, however, Annie continues to have visions that indicate something sinister is still going on.
The story being told here is fairly pedestrian, and the writing isn't really all that great either. Some of the revelations are anything but, and the characters as written are more than a little clichéd. What makes this film quite good are the performances from the supremely impressive cast and the infusion of atmosphere and tension by Raimi, together with some good old fashioned scares. It's mostly a small town drama, but there's an overriding sense of dread and menace throughout and the buildup to the handful of 'horror' scenes is very effective. Raimi's casting is immaculate and he really gets the most out of his actors. Blanchett is of course the star and is in virtually every scene, and she is brilliant; humble and reserved but with an air of the mysterious about her, she is at once just another citizen of the town and also someone clearly more intelligent and dignified. She goes through the whole gamut here as a psychic 'consultant', a struggling single mother, a lonely woman with romantic inclinations, a helpless individual being harassed by a dangerous redneck, a witness interrogated and humiliated in public during the trial, and a victim of frightening ghostly visitations; she's completely convincing in portraying all aspects of the character.
And then there's the rest of the cast! Seriously, every single one of these actors does great work (the only exception being, perhaps, Hillary Swank, who I thought was just good), particularly Keanu Reeves who seems perfect as the dim witted and belligerent Donnie Barksdale. Besides the ones I've already named, there are some other minor but strong performances from Rosemary Harris, Gary Cole, and Michael Jeter. Visually the film is quite somber and accentuates the morbid tone, as does the moody musical score.
Ultimately 'The Gift' is a very good film that on paper is just so-so. Worth watching for the excellent work by Raimi and the performances of the cast, particularly Blanchett. It's a bit of a mish-mash of genres, but it works and I enjoyed watching it again for the first time in years and was pleasantly surprised to find that it was as good as I remembered!