Reaping, The

Just when you thought Hilary Swank was on the right track, having won a second Oscar for “Million Dollar Baby,” along comes the schlocky and pretentious supernatural thriller “The Reaping.”

Yes, I know, as a viable star, Swank has to make all kinds of films, art and mass-oriented, and this one belongs to the latter category. Warner's insecurity about their product is reflected in moving the release date from Friday, April 6, to Thursday, April 5. The reason: Friday is the release date of “Grindhouse,” Tarantino and Rodriquez's loving homage to exploitation flicks of the 1970s.
Beginning with the title, continuing with the text, and ending with a nod to Polanski's “Rosemary's Baby,” “The Reaping” is a hybrid, a routine horror tale dressed up with heavy dosage of symbolism–all ten plagues of Exodus are used (see below). As scripted by the siblings team of Casey W. Hayes and Chad Hayes (who scribed the screenplay for the 2005 remake of the 1953 horror classic House of Wax), the film is a pastiche made of bits and pieces of old movies like “The Exorcist,” still the godfather of religious horror films, as well as “The Omen,” and more recently “The Exorcism of Emily Rose.”

Pity David Morrissey, a gifted British actor, who here again lends estimable support to a major female star in an unworthy picture. “The Reaping” follows the notoriously vas “Basic Instinct 2,” in which he co-starred with Sharon Stone, and “Derailed,” with Jennifer Aniston.

Make no mistakes: There are some cheap but undeniable pleasures to be had, a result of the gifted talent behind the scenes, producer Joel Silver and director Bob Zemeckis (here functioning as a producer), known for his wizardry with CGI, even if most of them just repeat tricks you have seen before.

Reflecting the current zeitgeist in it emphasis on loss, conspiracy, paranoia, and other malaises, the film's premise is not bad. Hilary Swank plays Katherine Winter, a woman who doesnt believe in miracles–only in facts. A former minister, Katherine turned her back on the cloth after losing her young daughter and husband while doing missionary work in Sudan. “The Reaping” is yet another picture that exploits politics in Africa, a continent that's been used in a dozen films over the past two or three years (“The Constant Gardener began the cycle).

Disillusioned, Katherine now seeks answers through rational thinking and scientific investigation rather than religion and prayer. As a university professor, she has become a debunker of supposed miracles, called to sites all over the globe to investigate weeping statues, wall stains that resemble saints, palms that bleed.

We are led to believe that thus far there's no divine mystery Katherine hasnt been able to solve. However, when small-town schoolteacher Doug Blackwell (David Morrissey) seeks her help after some bizarre occurrences the townspeople believe to be sent by God, Katherine and her associate Ben (Idris Elba, of HBOs The Wire fame) are forced to realize that “sometimes” miracles can be treacherous, and that “often” the line between faith and superstition is dangerously thin. (I am not spoiling any fun by suggesting the film's message early on in my review).

Rehashing myths about Southern folks, “The Reaping” exploits the particular place of Louisiana in our collective consciousness, a cumulative product of literary, theatrical and cinematic works. Hence, hidden among Louisiana's woods and swamplands, Haven is a town where no rules of reason prevail. Early on, a child died and the river turns into blood, signaling just the beginning of a revisiting of the Biblical ten plagues upon Haven.

Though she tries hard, for the first time in her professional career, Katherine cant explain these phenomena with science. The town's residents believe an enigmatic child named Loren McConnell (well-played by the young AnnaSophia Robb, who appeared in Bridge to Terabithia) has brought Gods wrath to their doorstep. But there are differences of opinion: What the common folks see as harbinger of evil, Katherine sees as a lost child desperately needing help.

As the saga unfolds, things go from bad to worse, and the plot begins to pile up second-hand ideas and allegories. The more Katherine is drawn into the dark heart of the mystery, the more she discovers her own role in a bizarre conspiracy that threatens to shroud the world in darkness.

As noted, “The Reaping” was made by Dark Castle Entertainment, Joel Silver and Robert Zemeckis' Warner-housed company, and so for a while, production values are able to conceal the film's various shortcomings.

Stephen Hopkins has had a checkered career as a director, having made such divergent yet uneven fare as HBO's “Tales From the Crypt” as well as “The Life and Death of Peter Sellers (which played in competition in 2005 Cannes Festival), with Geoffrey Rush in the lead

Probably determined by demographics, “The Reaping” is directed in such way that its contents can be taken as serious by some young (and undiscriminating) viewers, and campy and cheesy by other, older ones. Horror movies, of all kinds, are riding high right now at the box-office, so “The Reaping” may find its audience for one weekend.

Theres dust everywhere, and Hopkins like to zoom in on certain things and certain people. Creating a chilling effect, locusts splatter on the lens, which appears accidental, but was actually pre-planned. To increase tension, most of the saga is nocturnal. When electricity shuts down during one crucial episode, you know that Hopkins had done his homework and that “The Reaping” is standard-issue.

Structurally, flashbacks to Sudan and Katherine's past are inserted in obvious, predictable way. Signaling disaster in more senses than one, the climactic sequence might generate mixed feelings due to the fact that the movie is set in Louisiana in the post-Hurricane Katrina (and two weeks later Hurricane Rita) era.

You may wonder, then, what are the film's pleasures mentioned earlier They have to do with visual presentation of the various plagues, some of which is effectively haunting. They are the product of the behind-the-scenes creative team, which includes director of photography Peter Levy, production designer Graham Grace Walker, editor Colby Parker, Jr., and costume designer Jeffrey Kurland.

Let me be more specific about the production values. Based on locations manager Peter Novak's decision, the film was shot in St. Francisville (population 1,712), a town with beautiful scenery, spectacular Victorian homes–and community of cool and eclectic people. Reportedly, St. Francisville itself was destroyed by floods 120 years ago, after which everything was moved up on top of a hill away from the swamps. The crumbling plantation homes, swamps, and deep woods seem suitable or the story's particular atmosphere.

Designer Graham Grace Walker and his team created gas station, mortuary, barbershop, a gothic plantation, and catacombs beneath an ancient site, all locales drenched with a sense of mystery. Similarly, costumer Jeffrey Kurland (Bullets Over Broadway) designed a moody palette for the films costumes, with muted tones that suggest antiquity; everything looks worn or washed out. Katherine wears tailored, workaday clothes, whereas Loren sports a single dress, that's too small and tight on her, reflecting the wear and tear of the five days living in the woods that she endured. Elbas character, a former street kid who had sustained eight bullet wounds, expresses his abiding faith in God through his tattoos.

Dealing with the Exodus' ten plagues, the filmmakers try to juxtapose the supernatural with a more believable world. Cinematographer Peter Levy try to give the visuals the immediacy of a TV news report, which suits the straightforward, evidence-driven way that Katherine perceives and experiences the world. Expectedly, in the first plague, the river turns to blood and red, but it's also full of dead fish and scum, as if caused by a chemical plant accident. The nine plagues that follow are frogs, flies, diseased livestock, lice, boils, locusts, darkness, fire from the sky, and the final plague, death of the firstborn, borrows from “Rosemary's Baby.”

Practical footage is enhanced with computer-generated imagery supervised by Richard Yuricich (2001: A Space Odyssey, among other projects), who worked directly with the negative rather than shooting separate effects plates. Traditionally, photographing elements are first independently shot and then combined with the live action footage. But for this film, Yuricich treated the first element, the original negative, and tried to be as photo-real as possible.

Attempts to ground the supernatural elements into the notions of faith (and the loss of faith) are honorable but not always successful. In its good moments, “The Reaping” is about a personal journey of spirituality, stressing the dual role of religion in small communities like Haven, where religion can enlighten some while control and destroy others.

As for Swank, after observing her work for close to a decade, it may be safe to predict that we are likely to see more of this generic schlock, occasionally interrupted by great performances in edgy, more significant movies. Such was the case of “Boys Dont' Cry,” the 1999 Oscar-winning indie that put her on the map, which was followed by mostly bad and even dismal pictures–until “Million Dollar Baby” in 2004.

Ultimately, Swank's career pattern may not be so much a matter of choice–if as a young, beautiful and talented actress she was wants to maintain an active Hollywood career. “Freedom Writers” as a movie and Swank's acting in it fall somewhere in the middle of a spectrum that runs from “Million Dollar Baby” at one extreme and “The Reaping” (or “Affair of the Necklace” at the other.

Cast

Katherine Winter (Hilary Swank)
Doug Blackwell (David Morrissey)
Ben (Idris Elba)
Loren (AnnaSophia Robb)
Father Costigan (Stephen Rea)

Credits

MPAA rating: R
Running time: 110

Warner Pictures presentation in association with Village Roadshow Pictures a Dark Castle Entertainment production
Director: Stephen Hopkins
Producers: Joel Silver, Robert Zemeckis, Susan Downey, Herbert W. Gains
Executive producers: Erik Olsen, Steve Richards, Bruce German
Screenplay: Casey W. Hayes, Chad Hayes, based on a story by Brian Rousso
Director of photography: Peter Levy
Production designer: Graham “Grace” Walker
Music: John Frizzell
Costume designer: Jeffrey Kurland
Editor: Colby Parker Jr.