Southern Gothic murder mysteries seldom come as absorbing or as unsettling as "The Gift," a deliciously creepy little picture that has director Sam Raimi effectively incorporating supernatural shocks and making terrific use of a cast led by Cate Blanchett. Raimi, director of the 1982 gross-out horror flick "The Evil Dead" and its two successors, as well as 1998's brilliantly constructed drama "A Simple Plan," has concocted a disturbing occult thriller, a rarity in the age of cheap thrills, buckets of gore and overblown special effects. Those disappointed by "What Lies Beneath" and last year's batch of devil-movie duds ought to find far more spooky satisfaction here.
Blanchett, the ever-reliable Australian nominated for an Oscar as the title character in 1998's "Elizabeth," is quietly riveting as Annie Wilson, the town "fortune teller" and confidante to assorted misfits in Brixton, Ga. The tiny, insular community is bordered by a misty, murky cypress swamp, its rippling surfaces and enormous, bare tree roots photographed at sunrise during an evocative opening sequence.
Annie augments her meager pension, provided by the factory where her husband was killed a year earlier, with income from tarot-card readings. This mother of three boys is something of a reluctant psychic, more interested in dispensing friendly advice than in cavalierly making use of her powers. Her gift was acquired the natural way, inherited from her grandmother, long deceased but suddenly alive again and sharing a basket of persimmons during one eerie sequence.
Among those who go to Annie for counseling and motherly affection are battered, superstitious wife Valerie Barksdale (an underused Hilary Swank), who is married to womanizing redneck Donnie (Keanu Reeves), and mentally and emotionally stunted mechanic Buddy Cole (Giovanni Ribisi, reprising elements of his work in "The Other Sister"), a troubled man burdened with a dark family secret.
Annie's gift, unfortunately, is the kind that keeps on giving, even when she'd prefer to go off duty: After discussing her oldest son's disciplinary problems with his principal, Wayne Collins (Greg Kinnear), she's struck by a vision when Collins' flirtatious young fiancee, Jessica King (Katie Holmes), asks sarcastically, "You think we'll live happily ever after?" Annie responds by catching a frightening glimpse of yellowed legs dragging in muddied, weed-strewn water. She keeps the vision to herself.
Preparing for her impending union by rather indiscreetly bedding every man in sight, Jessica vanishes one night, and her father, her future husband and Sheriff Pearl Johnson (J.K. Simmons), having run out of leads in the investigation, call on Annie's help. The sheriff, in a nice touch, pays more attention to the department's supply of doughnuts and coffee than to the clairvoyant activity, even when his crew is dragging a local pond for a corpse.
Raimi and cinematographer Jamie Anderson effectively color "The Gift" with an unnerving moodiness, as Annie moves ever closer to discovering the ugly truth about the mystery. The once-shelved script, by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson, the same duo responsible for Carl Franklin's 1991 "One False Move," offers and then eliminates one suspect after another. The identity of the real killer isn't that difficult to figure out, though, and the final twist is somewhat reminiscent of the one in "The Sixth Sense."
Annie is also forced to deal with a haughty and wormy attorney, the anger of townsfolk who accuse her of witchery, and the real and implied vicious violence of Donnie, as he gradually intensifies his threats to hurt the clairvoyant and her kids. Reeves, burly, bearded and dashing in a backwoods manner, is truly frightening as Donnie, and he turns in the best performance of his career -- one that alone is worth the price of admission.