A Ghost Story For Christmas: The Gift, 2000

Small town psychic Annie reads the cards in exchange for donations ever since her husband was killed last year in an industrial accident, leaving her with three little boys. The neighbors line up for her advice, including unbalanced car mechanic Buddy, and battered wife Valerie. Valerie’s hypocritical husband Donnie takes exception to Annie’s advice to Valerie and makes Annie and her kids the subject of a witch hunt. When the local bigwig’s hot pants daughter Jessica goes missing and turns up dead in Donnie’s pond, Annie has a chance to see Donnie’s threats against her end with him locked up for murder. But Jessica’s ghost says otherwise.

Every time I look for an American ghost story to watch, I’m looking for something of the same quality as The Gift. The trouble is, of course, that there are very few movies I have found that match the quality of this one. It’s extremely rare that I would take to a movie like this that, I will admit, completely lacks comedic elements, but The Gift manages to be a supernatural drama that isn’t at all maudlin or sentimental. It’s a mystery about ghosts and psychic visions, but like all good ghost stories, it’s really about something else, namely family violence and relationships. It’s my favorite thing Billy Bob Thornton ever wrote, and my favorite thing Sam Raimi ever directed. The starring cast is extraordinary, including Cate Blanchett, Giovanni Ribisi, Keanu Reeves, Katie Holmes, Greg Kinnear, Hilary Swank, and Sam Raimi’s yellow car. The supporting cast is awesome too, with a bunch of “that guys” you will recognize including Gary Cole, Kim Dickens, and one of the guys who played Mr. Noodle on Sesame Street.

I’m a lifelong devotee of the supernatural, with a special interest in both ghosts and ESP, and the ghosts and visions here are mesmerizing. I like how Annie spaces out, and stuff starts falling over, then she sees something. Every movie has its own language for dealing with psychic phenomena. The fiddler on the pond is the scariest thing, because of the way he’s sped up, and the ghosts just look like people rather than CGI weirdos, although one is in fright makeup.

But it’s Cate Blanchett as Annie that really keeps me repeat watching this. The character is so kind, patient, and willing to do the right thing that she is an inspiration. She’s not a pushover though; she stands up for herself even when she’s terrified. I sure wish I could read tarot too, but while I can understand what the cards mean, I can’t use them to tell a story. I do occasionally get a flash of useful intuition, but I can’t do it on command. Maybe if I was more humble and even tempered like Annie. I wouldn’t want to see ghosts though, even the ghost of a grandmother like she does! And I think Sam Raimi must have been enamored with Blanchett as well, because the way she is lit here, she has never looked prettier. Speaking of pretty, this was shot in Savannah, with all the oak trees and moss on display, and the final shot takes place by the river in Bonaventure Cemetery.

The Gift is streaming on Netflix right now, so if you haven’t seen it, or even if it’s been a while, do yourself a favor and go watch it. Every time I watch it, I feel like watching it again right away, and I almost can’t make a higher recommendation than that, but I will also add that my mother watched the whole thing, and she just about never sits still long enough to watch a movie. So you know it must be damn good! Watch it!

P.S. I forgot to mention that there is nothing that will make me turn off a movie more quickly than bad southern accents, and I’m happy to report there are none here, although Swank’s sort of comes and goes. You would think Keanu wouldn’t be able to do one, based on his terrible accent in Dracula, but he does fine. I remember seeing an interview with Blanchett where she praised the dialect coach Carla Meyer on The Gift for keeping them all from “going to Scarlett O’ Hara land.” And she did!