Screenwriters Utopia (US), October 3, 2000
Script Review, THE GIFT
by Darwin Mayflower
I love being blindsided by a screenplay. The way I was when I picked up Alan Ball’s AMERICAN BEAUTY a few years ago (long before anyone was talking about Oscars and it in the same sentence). It was darkly trenchant and showed us what lurks beneath better than anything we’ve seen since David Lynch’s BLUE VELVET.
I was just as surprised by THE GIFT. Which I picked up and gave a look-see more for its human surroundings than anything else. I knew that Sam Raimi directed it. And that actor-director-writer Billy Bob Thronton and his writing partner Tom Epperson (ONE FALSE MOVE, A FAMILY THING) had written it.
What I didn’t know was that it was one of the sharpest spooky-suspense scripts I’ve ever read.
We’re in Parker, Arkansas (pop. 9, 567) and local mother of three Annie Wilson is a fortuneteller who runs a card-reading shop out of her house. The small-minded townspeople think she’s a witch and claim she worships Satan. Her older son gets into fights at school just about every day because of it.
Annie’s husband died the year before in an explosion at his job. She lives for her three young boys now and leads a lonely life. Through her job she stows away her own pain and deals with others’ -- as bizarre as those problems sometimes are.
One of Annie’s "clients" is Anita Barksdale. She’s the classic abused wife who won’t leave her vile husband. When Anita’s husband, Donnie, finds out Annie is telling Anita to leave him, he begins to harass Annie and her boys.
The boys’ principal, Wayne Pullman, is dating and set to marry the local rich man’s daughter -- the stunningly beautiful Jessica King. Jessica couldn’t be faithful if she had a cast-iron chastity belt on. "Fidelity" does not exist in her vocabulary.
Jessica disappears. Her car is found in a parking lot. But no one’s seen or heard from her in days. Everyone fears the worst.
Annie starts to have intense, strange dreams and visions. She finally realizes her "gift" is showing her who killed Jessica King.
I would love to tell you what happens next, the way I was frothing at the mouth to do so once I was done with the script (I’ve ruined the movie for two people at this point), but I won’t. I think it would be best for you to see it on your own and experience the wonderful twists and turns Epperson and Thornton so masterfully lay out.
Two books/movies came to me while reading this script: MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL and THE SHIPPING NEWS. Both combine the odd and the fantastic with reality. They are all very specific in location and character. MIDNIGHT and THE GIFT are filled with twanging, drawling Sudners. They also include extensive courtroom scenes.
I am a big fan of both of those works. Ron Bass’ adaptation of SHIPPING, which was, ironically, rewritten by Epperson, was a beautiful script about dealing with loss that mixed insane, spontaneous bursts of whimsy (like a house lifting itself in a storm and landing unscathed) with deep, heartfelt emotion.
THE GIFT, at the very least, works on that same elevated level that MIDNIGHT and SHIPPING do. In a certain way it might even rise about, insofar as what they’re going for here (the "Southern gothic" everyone is always mentioning), because they fully embrace their paranormal story line. Thornton and Epperson are slickly intelligent and present this striking tale with the ease one reassembles a model you’ve owned all your life -- the grace both shrewd and uncanny.
They take the time to show us who the people of Parker are before launching into their supernatural yarn about visions and ESP. The writing is so breezy and the characters so finely drawn that for the first thirty pages or so you almost wish they’d stick to small-town life and small-time romance (this is, of course, before the rug is pulled from beneath your feet and the real story begins).
I’ve probably read over a thousand scripts in my short life. About five percent of the time I’m eager to see the movie. That happened after THE GAME, Ron Bass’ ENTRAPMENT (which never made it to the screen), AMERICAN BEAUTY, I AM LEGEND (by Mark Protosevich; this is still not made), RONNIE ROCKET (also still not made).
I have that feeling and then some about THE GIFT. Not only because of the ingeniousness of the script, but because the filmmakers seem to have gotten everything right. Think about it:
Sam Raimi is directing it. I think this will be Raimi’s first successful post-EVIL DEAD movie so far. It’ll bring together his horror-movie know-how and the expert suspense he brought to the finale of A SIMPLE PLAN. A SIMPLE PLAN was Raimi’s bid to be taken seriously. But I found the film to be nothing more than empty space supporting a great third act and a strange, weirdly-obvious homage to FARGO (don’t have the space to get into it, but the films have a lot more in common than their settings).
The cast --
Cate Blanchett as Annie Wilson. Oscar nominee Blanchett can dazzle us with her take on the southern accent (the way she did the Long Island nasal in PUSHING TIN). Blanchett, like Jodie Foster, can say as much with her face, showing you her inner troubles, than just about any actress.
Keanu Reeves playing wife-beating Donnie. THE MATRIX’s bullet-dodging hero as a redneck who torments a woman and her kids. When did Canoe Reeves (as I call him) get so smart? Taking a role that will challenge him and his fans. It’s hard to think of Canoe Reeves as threatening...but, then again, watching THE REPLACEMENTS again sounds like third-degree torture.
Hilary Swank as timorous, broken-down Anita. Her first movie since winning the Oscar for BOYS DON’T CRY. Taking the role despite being paid nothing.
My favorite casting: Katie Holmes as Jennifer, the whore who can’t get enough that gets murdered for her troubles. Katie’s been good in bad movies (anyone actually watch DISTURBING BEHAVIOR?)...and now maybe her efforts will be worth it.
After reading a script and enjoying it the way I did THE GIFT -- it’s pretty hard to appreciate the movie on the same level. But I can only think that THE GIFT, with this cast and Raimi directing his heart out in the four or so surreal dreams and visions, will be even better.
Foolhardily and wholeheartedly believing that any script this good cannot be damaged by the many hands that will knead it...I look forward to its coming release in December and ask that you support its small run when the big boys try to knock it over the wayside.