I’ve had tremendous fun writing this blog, and I hope y’all have enjoyed reading it. One of the biggest joys of my “Year with Kinnear” has been reviewing bad movies I’d heard of but would’ve never otherwise watched. Like Last Song. Another joy has been watching good movies I’d never heard of and would’ve never otherwise watched. Like Ghost Town. Yet a third joy has been watching really good movies I’d never heard of, would’ve never otherwise watched, and would’ve never imagined Greg Kinnear in. Like black comedies Nurse Betty and The Matador, or haunting psychological thriller The Gift. (Take that Dr. Seuss).
The Gift is basically a whodunit of a grisly murder solved by a psychic fortune teller. It’s set in the eerie swamps of Georgia and is the darkest Greg Kinnear movie I’ve watched. It’s directed by horror master Sam Raimi whose lengthy resume includes the Evil Dead trilogy, Drag Me to Hell, and (for something lighter) the Tobey Maguire Spiderman trilogy. So, yeah, it’s a bit spooky.
Equally surprising to Greg starring in The Gift is everyone else in The Gift. The cast is legit loaded and makes my half-joking claim that Greg’s “co-starred with basically every famous actor and actress” true. The cast includes Cate Blanchett, Keanu Reeves, Hilary Swank, Giovanni Ribisi, Katie Holmes, JK Simmons, and Rosemary Harris (aka Aunt May). Woah. I had to pinch myself in the scenes with Blanchett, Simmons, and Kinnear. I never thought such stars would align. The Coen Brothers made me love Simmons, and Blanchett was my favorite actress in college (after watching Babel, Life Aquatic, and I’m Not There where she plays freakin’ Bob Dylan). For all these reasons, I was excited to watch The Gift and it did not disappoint.
The Gift (2000)
The screenplay for The Gift was written by Billy Bob Thorton (to add yet another all-star name), and based on his mother who he insists had ESP. The movie is an atmospheric drama that builds a town first and then adds a story. At the center is Cate Blanchett, a widowed mother of three boys who works as a fortune teller. She reads cards and uses her gift of visions inherited from granny, but mostly uses her God-given common sense to advise her clients. The movie’s rich symbolism underscores that Cate’s barely making ends meet. Endless shots of trees hanging with Spanish moss suggest the Georgia swamp is dragging Cate down, while the non-closing door of her Oldsmobile Delta 88 suggests she’s falling in. Yet like a reed that bends but never breaks, Cate’s resilient.
Through Cate, we meet the town folk of Brixton, Georgia. The unifying theme across characters is that everyday life holds horrors in plenty. These peeps live dark lives. I highlight the top seven characters in this labor-of-love homemade diagram, and you might want to spend a few minutes with it.
We meet Giovanni Ribisi, the town mechanic with an undisclosed psychological disorder. He’s one of Cate’s clients, and sees himself as her defender. We will later light his dad on fire for sexually abusing him as a child, revealing the source of his psychological distress.
We meet Greg Kinnear, principal of Cate’s boys’ school and Katie Holmes’ fiancé. Greg and Cate share feelings of mutual attraction, but their stars have never aligned. Which is a shame, because Katie Holmes is cheating on Greg with basically everyone in town.
We meet Hilary Swank, Cate’s client with a black eye courtesy of the husband she needs to leave. Said husband is Keanu Reeves, the town’s racist redneck and a truly horrible character. He repeatedly threatens Cate to stay away from Hilary, threatens Cate’s son, breaks into Cate’s home to write ‘Satan’ on her bed, and drags Hilary by the hair through and out of Cate’s house. (This last scene is quite bracing, as Hilary knocks over a bucket of rust-colored paint that follows her dragged body through the house).
After setting up these pieces, Raimi takes one away. Holmes goes missing. Her dad and Greg enlist the town sheriff (JK Simmons), but he can’t solve the case and the trio visits Cate. In a vision, Cate sees white flowers, two pillars, a fiddler at a pond, and a drowning Holmes wrapped in chains. Simmons identifies Fiddler’s pond as the vision’s location, which is (surprise, surprise) on Keanu’s property. They dredge the pond, find Holmes’ body, and arrest Keanu. Turns out Keanu was sleeping with Holmes, met her at a bar the night she went missing, and slapped her unconscious. There’s a long, messy trial scene meant to highlight Cate’s and Keanu’s acting skills, and Keanu is found guilty. Case closed…
Until Cate has another super creepy vision. In it, Cate walks in on the ghost of Holmes in her bathtub before Holmes turns to cuss her out. Keanu’s not the killer. [Keep reading for MAJOR SPOILERS!] Cate goes to the prosecutor, but he won’t reopen the case (he was also sleeping with Holmes). She visits Greg Kinnear, who suggests visiting the pond at night to get “a new vision of the killer.” This amazing suggestion alerts the viewer that Greg’s the killer. Cate & Kinnear go to the pond, Cate gets a vision (Greg killed Holmes for cheating and constantly belittling him), and then Cate must fight off Greg. She does, with the help of Giovanni Ribisi who followed them to the pond. Or was he even there? Turns out he’d killed himself earlier that night.
Overall, The Gift is a solid movie that at least deserves a fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Cate and Keanu lean into their Southern accents, and deliver great performances. The movie creates a strong atmosphere, and Cate’s dream sequences are well-shot and genuinely frightening. All that said, the plot’s payoff is underwhelming and Giovanni Ribisi’s character is both excessively over-acted and unnecessary.
Wayne With Restraint
I don’t usually talk about Greg’s character names in movies, but I’ve noticed a trend. Greg, because he’s a white man in his 30s or 40s, often gets a bonafide white dad name…even when his character isn’t a dad. He was Walter in Stuck on You, Carl in Salvation Boulevard, Frank in both Ghost Town and You’ve Got Mail, and actual white dad Bob in Flash of Genius. But he gets the whitest dad name yet in The Gift, Wayne. Proving my point, the name Wayne peaked in popularity in 1950 and only 0.014% of people (aka 1 of your 7,143 friends) are naming their kids Wayne nowadays. Not sure what the point of my point is, other than that The Gift wins for giving Greg his whitest dad name yet. (For comparison, Carl is the next-most-least-popular at 0.021%, or 1 in 4,162 friends). Maybe the name Wayne was inspired by actual killer John Wayne Gacy, Jr., but Sufjan’s song wouldn’t come out for another six years.
So how was Greg’s performance as Wayne? In a word, restrained. Greg reined in any attempts at a thick Southern accent, and imbues his character with a respectable, salt-of-the-earth vibe. I speculate the reasons for this were two-fold. First, to remove any suspicion that Wayne was the killer and make the ending more shocking. Everybody suspects racist, wife-beater Keanu or even the mentally unstable, arsonist Giovanni. Nobody suspects Wayne Collins, school principal and country club member. Second, “Wayne with restraint” better fits Greg’s talents. His narcissistic anger can be top-notch, but I’m not sure Greg’s acting range stretches enough to include the vitriolic range central to Keanu’s character or chaotic volatility of Giovanni’s character.
As “Wayne with restraint,” Greg is extremely perceptive. While Cate has visions and flips cards, Greg reads her. When Holmes, Greg, and Cate first share a scene, Cate has a vision of the couple’s doomed fate but assures them that they’ll be fine. Greg sees through her, and later asks her what bad thing she saw. Greg’s perceptiveness and attention to Cate creates a special connection, which takes intimate turns with an offer to dance and an attempt to make out after Keanu’s trial. Greg plays his salt-of-the-earth, perceptive character perfectly to the end. He takes Cate to the pond in hopes that he can explain. He has no killer instincts, Holmes’ infidelity and his constant belittlement by her drove him to a one-time act. The viewer is never scared of Greg, so much as worried that Cate’s been shook by her visions and can’t escape. This was a perfectly fine line for Greg to walk and a solid performance, even if a more vicious acting turn would have produced a more terrifying ending.
- The Gift is a dark, atmospheric film driven by an outstanding performance from Cate Blanchett. Sam Raimi’s deft direction creates some creepy scenes, but the plot’s payoff is weak.
- Greg’s had a lot of white dad names in his movies, but he get’s his whitest dad name yet in the Gift. Greg-as-Wayne is a school principal with a wildly unfaithful wife…and a killer!
- Greg delivers a measured, perceptive performance that appears restrained when compared to Keanu Reeves’ and Giovanni Ribisi’s performances. But it works just fine for Greg, to the tune of a solid-if-not-outstanding Kinnear Meter ranking.
- Next-up: Stuck in Love, a comedy with the same Rotten Tomatoes score as The Gift. Should make for an interesting comparison. It also stars Kristen Bell, so I’ll publish it when a new episode of the Good Place airs and hope to draw in many lost readers! Here’s the trailer.
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