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If this atmospheric Southern Gothic had been made without the benefit of any of its high-profile actors, it could easily have become a modest find, a film to discover privately in a second-run theater or on the video-store shelf. But its story is too small to justify the high-octane combination of Cate Blanchett, Keanu Reeves, Hilary Swank, Giovanni Ribisi, Greg Kinnear and Katie Holmes. Not that any of them are bad; Reeves, Ribisi and especially Blanchett are good, even good together. It's just that when taken together they strain at the story's flimsy architecture —you end up watching them, not their performances. Blanchett plays newly widowed Annie Wilson, a mother to three boys who, in a little room in her run-down house, reads cards for the neighbors, divining secrets and telling fortunes. Directed by Sam Raimi and written by Billy Bob Thornton and Tom Epperson (who together also wrote One False Move), the story is familiar in both right and wrong ways. As in all good horror movies, things go bang in the night the way that you want (at a press screening, the audience burst into well-disposed laughter when a character ran a bath), but the villain is uninspired and the plot is puffed up with filler, though not the ambient kind. A court scene drags interminably, and Ribisi's character, essentially a more tightly wound version of the simpleton Thornton played in Sling Blade, has no real reason to be in the film. Here, it's the creepily quiet stuff, the stuff that might be rushed over in a different movie—Annie shivering alone in bed or being visited by her dead grandmother as she hangs out the wash—that makes the film more than a generic distraction.

ALL THE PRETTY HORSES PLAYs countywide, starting mon.; AN EVERLASTING PIECE PLAYs countywide, starting mon.; FINDING FORRESTER is NOW PLAYING at selected theaters; THE GIFT is NOW PLAYING at selected theaters.

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