The Reaping is a would-be horror movie that defies its own anemic logic. The screenwriters set the story in the “Deep South” as the only place in the country where a population might embrace the plagues of Exodus to the extent of killing their own children. A river turns to blood in the fictitious small-town of Haven, Louisiana where creepy schoolteacher Doug Blackwell (David Morrissey) calls upon professional miracle debunker Katherine Winter (Hillary Swank) to visit and explain the strange occurrence. An abandoned little blonde girl/devil doll named Loren (AnnaSophia Robb) runs aimlessly through the area’s swampy back woods after being blamed by townsfolk for the death of a boy at the river’s edge before it turned crimson red.
Katherine suffered a crisis of faith after her husband and daughter were murdered in the Sudan while the family was there on a religious mission, yet constant flashbacks to that chapter of her past provide no insight to the story at hand. The filmmakers furnish a gratuitous Exorcist allusion in the guise of Father Costigan (Stephen Rea) whose photos of Katherine with her family in the Sudan, spontaneously combust to form an upside-down sickle when placed together.
Rea, who has given the kiss of death to as many films as have endured his graceless presence, serves an irrelevant subplot that never pays off. To this end, the whole film is made up of detached episodes interspersed with raining frogs, lice, maggots, dying cows, people breaking out with boils, locusts and the murder of children—although the screenwriters inexplicably play this tenth plague climax as something that the locals have participated in for years. For audience members not keeping count, the picture waffles on the Bible’s plagues of raining rocks and constant darkness. I took it as a show of mercy, considering how long the movie already seems.
A crucial plot-point is lifted from Rosemary’s Baby when Doug takes advantage of hosting Katherine and her ineffectual sidekick Ben (Idris Elba) in the shelter of his moss and mold-covered gothic mansion. On a night when Ben is away, Doug drugs Katherine and rapes her, although it’s never concretely divulged whether the event is a nightmare or an actual violation. As such, director Stephen Hopkins (The Life and Death of Peter Sellers) commits an irresponsible narrative act that negates all significance, save for the sequel that the situation indicates at the film’s denouement.
The Oscars that Hillary Swank won for Boys Don’t Cry and Million Dollar Baby do not acknowledge her severely limited acting range. Swank had the good fortune of giving two strong performances in two good movies, but has tread water through every other role she’s played—the worst being her wayward period piece The Affair of the Necklace. Here, as in her miscast roles in Insomnia and The Black Dahlia, Swank is nothing more than an obedient prop being positioned in front of the camera where she visibly seeks approval.
The antithesis of a Cate Blanchett type of actress, Swank defaults to presenting, rather than representing, characters she doesn’t understand. Her instinct is always to play emotion over intellect. It’s a recipe for failure when the source material is mediocre at best.
That isn’t to say that the text for The Reaping is anything other than an insulting piece of unintelligible exploitation hackwork. In a movie with no purpose beyond small-scale grotesque spectacle, I can only imagine its purpose as a cinematic waiting room for the end of the world where the guy in charge isn’t capable of counting to 10. MTW