Director: Stephen Hopkins
Cast: Hilary Swank, David Morrissey, Idris Elba, AnnaSophia Robb, Stephen Rea
MPAA Rating: (for violence, disturbing images and some sexuality)
Running Time: 1:36
Release Date: 4/5/07
Review by Mark Dujsik
The Reaping is clearly more the result of marketing discussions than creative drive. What's selling right now? Well, religion and spirituality are making lots of money. Supernatural thrillers are a dwindling but still satiable hype. And who can resist the allure of freaky events captured in cheap CGI? Throw it all into a stew, watch it boil, leave it on the fire way too long, and serve. This is the kind of movie to which you have to attach a significant talent, because you might fool some folks into thinking, Hey, she was great in that, or she won an Oscar (in this case, two), or she works well even with bad material (in this case, not so much), so it can't be that bad. Right? And that's how movies like this are born. I'm getting a bit tired of using words like "silly," "ridiculous," and "ludicrous" in negative connotations to describe the pompously ambitious workings of plots like this, so I won't. I'll leave that for you to infer from what I've said so far. I will say the movie is a mess of theological ponderings, cheap twists and turns, and cheesy stylistic choices.
Late at night, Father Costigan (Stephen Rea) awakens to an odd glow in his room. He sees the face of a photograph being burnt on the spot, discovers that the same face has been burnt out of his other photos, and puts them together to form an odd symbol. The face belongs to Katherine Winter (Hilary Swank), a professor at Louisiana State University who has made a career debunking miraculous occurrences. Her current mission finds her in Chile with her devoutly religious partner Ben (Idris Elba), where an earthquake has opened the tomb of a priest, his corpse somehow preserved, and those who flock there end up afflicted with an ailment. Turns out, a local factory has been dumping toxic chemicals in the area, a fact she proudly states to her university class—the 48th miracle to which she has found a scientific explanation. Costigan calls her up to tell her about the photos and to throw out some character information about her, and she is soon visited by Doug (David Morrissey), a math and science teacher in the small town of Haven, who asks her to investigate a phenomenon in his town—the river has apparently turned to blood.
That should sound familiar to anyone with the Book of Exodus, and yes, this is the beginning of the ten plagues of Egypt set on the bayou. All the fish have died (the plant life, however, thrives), and Katherine is convinced it's some kind of bacteria in the water. Frogs follow, raining from the sky (with, sadly, no Magnolia reference in sight), and still Katherine is skeptical. See, she was a minister once, and in a very ham-fisted way, we learn the terrible fate that befell her husband and daughter and of her newly found agnosticism/atheism/something. Whatever it is, she's skeptical. The town, not so much. They think the plagues are the effect of a little, blonde, twelve-year-old girl named Loren (AnnaSophia Robb), whose family is outcast by the rest of the town. Of course, things are not as they seem, and Carey and Chad Hayes' script sets up the town, the family, and Loren in one way only to toss things around so many times it's confusing which side of the eternal struggle between good and evil is to blame for what. That's fine, because pretty soon, we stop caring either way. A Cliff Notes version of the movie's mythology should be handed out at every screening, but then again, that would imply the movie is sure of its mythology in the first place.
How else can you explain Costigan's theory that Satan is turning God's signs against the faithful? Or, for that matter, how can you explain the existence of Costigan's character? He throws out details about Katherine's past, gives her that harebrained hypothesis, and is dispatched within four scenes. Katherine heaves out a long explanation of how the original plagues actually happened, and instead of exploring the concept of science and religion inherent to the story, the movie relies entirely on gotcha moments. Things pop up out of nowhere, interrupting the evil choral score with brief zings of strings to emphasize that something popped up out of nowhere. The camera shakes and zooms, as if director Stephen Hopkins somehow thought a realist style would suit this material, and in one hilarious moment of stylistic excess, some locusts splatter on the camera and the rest attack it. Soon after, a character unintentionally gives away his true role in the story, and lots of flashbacks reiterate all the important information the audience needs to know for the twists to make half a bit of sense. The climax obviously is of biblical proportions and epic nonsensicality, rendered with a cheap CGI rip-off of Raiders of the Lost Ark.
The Reaping ends with a useless Rosemary's Baby tag and is utterly pessimistic, in spite of the central theme of rediscovering one's faith. The lesson to be learned, as the town of Haven was wracked natural disasters and is now bombarded with old school supernatural ones, is, with God, you can't win. I don't think that was intended to be the point, but maybe if the movie weren't so concerned with its silly, ridiculous, and ludicrous attempts at making a religiously unconscious supernatural thriller, it might have had one.
Copyright © 2007 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.