- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 4, 2007

With its theme of biblical plagues, satanic references and cutie-pie AnnaSophia Robb’s (“Bridge to Terabithia”) turn as a demon-eyed imp, “The Reaping” seems an ironic choice for a Holy Week release. It’s not exactly the kind of movie that families will flock to see after church services this weekend.

Perhaps the studio was hoping for some of the controversy-driven free press the slasher film “Black Christmas” enjoyed late last year. That just didn’t happen. However, early buzz about “The Reaping” indicates that the film shares at least one dubious trait with its dark holiday predecessor: It’s not very good.

Two-time Oscar winner Hilary Swank stars as Katherine Winter, an embittered college professor who has devoted her life to debunking religious miracles ever since her husband and daughter were murdered. When she’s not globe-trotting to track down new case studies, she’s lecturing and writing books about her faith-busting findings.

Her sidekick is Ben (Idris Elba of “The Wire”) who, like Katherine, is also driven by past hurts stemming from a nasty brush with death in the ‘hood. He’s actually into God, though, and hopes one day to find a miracle that can’t be explained away and thus proves the existence of a higher power.

But other noticeable questions go unchecked before the action begins. There’s no mention of what department at the university offers Katherine’s Faith Is Fake 101 course. (Is it religion, biology or something else?) Nor is there any mention of how Katherine and Ben are able to take off on a whim in the middle of the semester when important events strike. It’s shaky ground. But it’s just a movie, right?

One day, a handsome Southern stranger named Doug Blackwell (David Morrissey) approaches Katherine about some freaky things that are happening in his tiny bayou town. He thinks she can help. First, a boy died mysteriously. Then the town’s river turned to blood… or so it seems.

Katherine and Ben eventually decide the mysteries merit further inspection, and they journey to the Bible-loving locale. The two will stay with Doug (the perfect setup for the requisite love interest). However, additional plagues soon befall the city — and they appear to unfold in the same order as the 10 listed in the Old Testament.

Some townfolk suspect that a little girl (the young AnnaSophia) who’s on the run may be responsible for the boy’s death and other unexplained happenings. The deceased boy is her brother, and her family is on welfare — and, therefore, obviously guilty of something bad.

As Katherine gets closer to the youngster, we learn more about the professor’s past as an ordained minister and how this is somehow related to the loss of her own family and her subsequent disillusionment with God. Miss Swank has been something of a chameleon in her mostly impressive career, but somehow, this woman-of-the-cloth thing just rings hollow, making it even harder to invest in her eventual religious reawakening.

While the plot and characters of “The Reaping” may be weak in spots, its images are potent and grotesque. The college crew wades through the bloody water, pokes at dead frogs and cattle and gets pelted with locusts. There’s also the fire-from-the-sky plague and a roomful of children’s skulls.

Those who appreciate these morose special effects at least can latch onto that, but other moviegoers will be left with precious little other than one nagging thought: Who’s choosing movie scripts for Miss Swank these days?

*1/2

TITLE: “The Reaping”

RATING: R (Violence, disturbing images and sexuality)

CREDITS: Directed by Stephen Hopkins. Written by Carey W. Hayes and Chad Hayes.

RUNNING TIME: 96 minutes

WEB SITE: www.thereapingmovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS.


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