“Sometimes people just need to believe in miracles,” goes a line in “The Reaping,” but by the time you hear it, you’ve pretty much ditched that effort at least as far as this film is concerned. Starring two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank, “The Reaping” pretty much wastes her talents and those of people like Stephen Rea, who gives new meaning to the term “phoning in a performance.”
Directed by Stephen Hopkins (“The Life and Death of Peter Sellers”), this is that familiar concoction of faith and science, whirred in a blender and looking sufficiently bubbly and attractive. The pleasure fades, however, after the first few sips. One of the big frustrations here is that the story promises so much more than it delivers, fizzing out to a confused and unsatisfying conclusion. Intentionally or not, all punches are pulled but the big, revelatory hit that comes some time during the fourth reel in the more successful works of the genre never makes the cut.
Swank plays Katherine Winter, a missionary turned miracle-buster after the harrowing deaths of her husband and small daughter in Sudan where as a family, they had been engaged in preaching and charitable works. Now the Omnipotent and all-supposed miracles linked to a higher being are her enemies and she fully devotes herself to exposing frauds and drawing up scientific explanations. So when Louisiana school teacher Doug (David Morrissey, most often associated with his role in “Basic Instinct 2″) calls her in to investigate the terrible tragedies that has befallen his town of Haven, Katherine accepts with alacrity and flies down post-haste with her devout assistant Ben (Idris Elba).
Haven, as it turns out, is in the throes of Old Testament style disasters mindful of the 10 biblical plagues. Frogs rain from the sky, cattle die en masse, boils erupt on faces, rivers turn blood red, locusts blacken the sky and eat up miles of vegetation. At first, Katherine tries to rationalize the bad stuff away (she blames the redness of the river on pH imbalance in the water), but pretty soon she’s forced to abandon science and switch lanes to plain old survival. In the process, she befriends and protects 8-year-old Loren (Annasophia Robb) on whom the locals blame the whole of God’s wrath. And it’s a good thing she does, since the scenes between Katherine and Loren constitute the best moments in the movie — Swank’s oeuvre is the won’t-go-down-without-a-fight spunkiness, but she can also radiate maternal feeling and love that’s quite attractive to watch. No wonder Doug is attracted and the pair do get a certain chemistry going, but it’s not nearly as compelling as the relationship between Katherine and Loren and surely not enough to carry the plot along. And for something touted as a horror film, the scare factor is sorely lacking; it seems that most of Hopkins’ efforts were channeled into the impressively executed CGs of biblical catastrophe (the locust scene alone will probably arouse more wonder and faith than countless Sunday sermons) and for the rest, he resorted to traditional, ho-hum scare tactics like creaking doors and candles that mysteriously hiss before burning out.
Still, “The Reaping” offers a certain amount of entertainment and ruminations on the changing roles of women in horror/action films — Sigourney Weaver in the “Alien” series paved the way for hard-core ladies of action and since then we’ve seen some pretty fine women flex their biceps and wield AK-47s clad in very becoming tank-tops and army pants (Linda Hamilton in “Terminator 2,” Carrie Ann Moss in the “Matrix” series). Swank more or less inherited the torch in “Million Dollar Baby,” and in this one she has the opportunity to showcase both muscles (and of course, she can out-tanktop any action femme in a 500-mile radius) and brains, plus a personal history that involves a major career change.
As far as horror film heroines go, Swank’s character is interestingly developed and, to her credit, she refrains from charging her character with too much anger, power and in-your-face strength. Katherine has lost her faith, but she respects it in others and goes about her job with tact and knowledge. It’s too bad the plot doesn’t match her acumen or intelligence and during the last half hour she does little but sprint, pant and sweat, which she does to perfection but that’s not all it takes, right?
Watching movies like “The Reaping,” you can’t help wondering why heaven-sent calamities and acts of Satanic evil always seem to befall obscure, backwater towns in the United States which, in ordinary circumstances, seem like oases of peace and camaraderie. It all has to do with box -office politics; in America, small towns are populated by fervent Christian communities and biblical stories appreciated — or so deemed by marketing statistics. Which is why stories like “The Reaping” will always be around, a solid rock of lackluster familiarity in an ever-changing world.