This installment of Under the Radar spotlights a film in one of my favorite subgenres: southern gothic. While there are many books out there to scratch the southern gothic itch—Flannery O’Connor and William Faulkner immediately spring to mind—it’s a genre that remains vastly underutilized in film. This is a damn shame, given how so many of the trappings of SG lend themselves nicely to the medium.
Skeletal cypress trees, spidery clumps of Spanish moss, the murky green water of the swamp, and the ever-present sound of plaintive fiddle are all hallmarks of an atmospheric Southern tale. Throw in something dark, dangerous, supernatural, and you’ve got your gothic.
From its opening frames The Gift promises to fulfill all of these requirements. With Sam Raimi handling the directing and Billy Bob Thornton providing the screenplay, the film’s chops are certified: this is going to be a creepy and authentic thriller.
Annie Wilson (Cate Blanchett) is a widow with three small boys to look after. Following her husband’s death in an accident, she’s been making ends meet by using her “gift” to do psychic readings for the locals. Life may be difficult, but she’s surviving and keeping her family together.
Her biggest cause for concern lies with her friend, Buddy Cole (Giovanni Ribisi), who works at the garage and has anger and impulse control issues. Buddy is a tortured man for reasons he doesn’t fully understand, on medication and struggling with thoughts of suicide, and he often turns to Annie for advice and help. “You’re the only person I see as a friend,” he tells her after an episode.
Then, when Annie encourages one of her clients, Valerie Barksdale (Hilary Swank), to leave her abusive husband, she finds herself under attack. The violent Donnie (Keanu Reeves) begins terrorizing her for her interference. He threatens her and her sons, breaks into her house, hits her, and even attempts to snatch one of her boys while he’s walking to a neighbor’s house.
Denouncing her as a witch and a Satanist, promising that she’ll “burn,” Donnie is a very real and very frightening villain. Turning to the cops does nothing: they’re all friends of Donnie and look askance at Annie’s claims. It seems only a matter of time until he does something terrible to her family. And Reeves, who’s best known for his slacker comedies and action hero roles, does a magnificent job of making this evangelical redneck character downright monstrous.
Meanwhile, Annie’s oldest son is getting into some trouble at school when she meets the friendly principal Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear). There are some definite sparks between the two, but it looks like nothing will come of it: Wayne happens to be engaged to the beautiful and vivacious Jessica King (Katie Holmes). When Jessica asks Annie if she “sees” what their future will be like, there’s an unsettling moment when she sees the young woman standing in a puddle of water, her feet muddied from the swamp.
Then, only days later, Annie inadvertently catches Jessica hooking up with another man in the bathroom of the country club during a party. She tells Wayne nothing, but the knowledge bothers her. And when Jessica goes missing the next night—a night when Annie had a terrible dream that she was being strangled—it’s pretty clear that foul play is afoot.
Aware of her reputation, Wayne and Jessica’s worried father turns to Annie for help. The chief of police (J.K. Simmons) is wholly doubtful of her abilities, and at first, there’s little her gift tells her. She sees white flowers, a split-post fence, and a pond. Not much to go on.
That’s when the film turns the gothic dial all the way to eleven: Annie sees a manic fiddler playing by a pond and Jessica dead, floating, wrapped in chains. The imagery is disturbing; the way Annie’s visions are depicted have all the feel of a waking nightmare, disjointed and unexpected. She goes to the police, her details lead them to Donnie Barksdale’s pond, and then…
What follows is an emotionally fraught and tense trial. Donnie protests that he’s being framed, that the “witch” has cast spells over the town. Annie’s gift is mocked by the defense attorney. She continues to have terrible visions of Jessica and begins to wonder if there isn’t more to the case. Wayne spirals into deep grief and Buddy Cole snaps under the weight of his past demons.
Annie’s whole life seems to be falling apart—and then comes a climax that is full of unexpected twists.
I’m a sucker for personal dramas centered on people that mainstream society labels “weird” or “different,” and Annie’s story is a compelling one. It doesn’t hurt that she’s played by Cate Blanchett, easily one of the greatest living actresses. The whole cast does a great job, in fact, and is full of familiar faces.
The personalities behind the camera are an interesting combination, too, but come together nicely. Billy Bob Thornton previously tackled a dark southern drama to great effect in his Academy Award-winning Sling Blade, and this film was loosely inspired by his own mother’s psychic abilities; it was clearly a labor of love and something he was personally invested in. And Sam Raimi, known for the Evil Dead series, maintains an understated tone throughout most of the film—which just makes the creepy moments all the more startling. (Big Raimi fans will also recognize Annie’s clunker of a car as none other than “The Classic”, the Delta 88 Oldsmobile that appears in almost all of Raimi’s films.)
The Gift is a slow-burn, each scene layering onto the story to deliver a series of gut-punches by the end. Despite its frequent sunny summer moments, it’s a movie that is steeped in sadness and grief: one of the most compelling elements to a southern gothic. The focus on family—blood family, the family made by emotional bonds, and family that is dead but not entirely gone—provides a steady pulse for the action and character moments.
The threats of Donnie Barksdale, of the law, and of Annie’s own gift make this a frequently tense thriller. This isn’t a film that lends itself to a casual, light-hearted viewing. But if you’re in the mood for something evocative, emotional, and tinged with darkness, The Gift is a good fit.
If you like: NBC’s Medium, Sling Blade, Flannery O’Connor.
Why you should watch it: Great performances from an A-list cast; a compelling story with plenty of twists and interesting reveals; a fine example of contemporary southern gothic.
Favorite moment: The entire climax is riveting and emotionally satisfying.
Angie Barry wrote her thesis on the socio-political commentary in zombie films. Meeting George Romero is high on her bucket list, and she has spent hours putting together her zombie apocalypse survival plan. She also writes horror and fantasy in her spare time, and watches far too much Doctor Who. You can find her at Livejournal.com under the handle “zombres.”
Read all posts by Angie Barry at Criminal Element.