The Reaping (Warner Bros., R)

reaping1Good vs. evil is a staple in horror, but if you’re gonna bring religion into it and your directorial or screenwriting eyes aren’t set on entering Exorcist or Omen territory, you better have an absorbing tale to tell.

 

 

 

swank1 

Horror is such a reliably profitable genre, that no director or star can be blamed for a career stop or two that includes spooks, demons, aliens or psycho killers instead of that higher-brow stuff. However, said director or star risks a few dollops of cred if their turn towards terror fails to terrify or, in fact, to significantly spruce up the ol’ curriculum vitae. I doubt if Stephen Hopkins, director of The Reaping (and best-known for lensing Emmy-winning cable movie The Life and Death of Peter Sellers as well as a dozen episodes of 24), is concerned with these matters anymore than his two-time Oscar-winning star Hilary Swank is. They probably had a grand old time slogging around the swamps of Louisiana for this Biblical-themed gothic thriller. But moviegoers and film critics are certain to ponder such things as they exit this interesting but muddled little chunk of celluloid.

Swank plays Katherine Winter, a college professor who was once an ordained minister, but left the fold after a horrible family tragedy in Africa. She becomes an expert at debunking supposedly miraculous religious phenomena, and in a reasonably stimulating opening segment, we see her in Concepcion, Chile, countering the supposed miracle of a bunch of fluttery eyed locals being overtaken by the holy spirit, with a far more credible theory—that factory waste dumped into local oil wells has caused dangerous fumes to spread through the city’s sewer system, leading to widespread hallucinations. “Only the devil would try and stop God’s miracle,” sneers a Chilean mama when Winter stops her from applying some toxic goo to her ailing daughter. But criticism and distrust don’t phase Ms. I’ve-seen-it-all-and-it’s-all-bunk; in fact, she appears to have very little emotion at all, outside of steely detachment.

The movie really gets going when Winter is called upon to investigate some weirdness (including an apparent river of blood) in a small Louisiana hamlet; she’s accompanied by her best friend Ben (Idris Elba), a devout Christian who’s sad that Winter’s lost her faith, but is empathetic and devoted to her. Elba turns in the most nuanced performance in the film; he has real presence. So does a mysterious little blonde girl running around the swampy forests whose name is Loren McConnell (AnnaSophia Robb). The girl’s family has been beset by some seriously bad juju, and her mom thinks little Loren herself might be evil. Robb grabs your attention—the notion that a sweet little girl might be demonic is always reliably entertaining, although the filmmakers here don’t seem sure of where to take the story. Most of the action centers around that yucky red river filled with dead things (like frogs that go PLOP!), and the local homesteads where dying cattle and other mysterious developments have the townsfolk convinced that God is sending the ten Biblical plagues upon them, including—in one of the film’s impressive set pieces—a swarm of locusts. Lots of nasty stuff takes place, but despite early warnings from Father Costigan (Stephen Rea)—her former colleague from her missionary days—that her life is in danger, Ms. Winter seems sure everything will work out fine, with a logical explanation. Okay, it seems to be a bloody river and all, but y’know, festeria coulda caused all that deadness and redness. And that weird symbol turning up everywhere, like on the basement door of the McConnell house? Obviously some bad mutha cultists looking to spread fear and loathing in bayou country. Winter hardly seems perturbed by anything until the little girl becomes a focal point (for obvious reasons), and this is one of the film’s problems. Swank doesn’t show much emotion, and therefore doesn’t give a particularly interesting performance. Neither does the film’s other male lead, David Morrissey, as the deceptively mild-mannered Doug. What you’re left admiring is the film’s cinematography, and for my money, Peter Levy’s work is the best thing here. He gets some amazing overhead shots of bayou landscapes, and all the scenes in the river are visually striking if not nearly as scary as they shoulda been.

Strangely, this is a horror film with little horror, and I counted exactly two genuine jolts (the kind where you might make a sound or shift in your seat as a result). Good vs. evil is a staple in horror, but if you’re gonna bring religion into it and your directorial or screenwriting eyes aren’t set on entering Exorcist or Omen territory, you better have an absorbing tale to tell. And despite its solid visuals and a few choice moments, The Reaping doesn’t. You reap what you sew when your sights are set low. And in this case, the end result is so-so. | Kevin Renick

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