Judge Bill Gibron was once plagued by rampant sores, lice, flies, and flesh-eating locusts. Then he cleaned out his dorm room and went back to avoiding deranged dogma like the theology offered in this 2007 fright flop.
What Hath God Wrought?
God must hate Hollywood—and not for all its violations of his Commandments and obsession with those notorious deadly sins. No, the cosmic CEO must really despise the way religion gets retrofitted to turn genre films like The Reaping into apocalyptic mandates of meaningless dogma. While Kevin Smith has already cornered the market in taking the piss out of organized belief systems, it may be time to add Stephen Hopkins's name to the list as well. Surely Jehovah already has him right up there with Silent Bob, Mel Gibson, and the makers of that urban legend "Jesus was gay" film from 1973, Him. Hopkins manhandles a perfectly viable narrative about the coming of ten plagues to a small Louisiana enclave and turns it into a jaw-dropping example of CGI sacrilege. What should have bristled with the Almighty's awesome power and dozens of thorny theological discussions becomes another case of secret Satanists gone gonzo, and a last-act denouement that takes the notion of a vengeful Lord way too seriously. Instead of being revelatory, all we get is a routine rapture.
Facts of the Case
After an incident in Africa sours her on religion, ordained minister-turned-miracle-debunker Katherine Winter (Hilary Swank, Million Dollar Baby) is contacted by the Louisiana burg of Haven. Seems the water in the bayou has turned to blood and, besides that, a little girl has been accused of killing her brother. Hoping she will provide insight into either or both situations, math teacher Doug (David Morrissey, Basic Instinct II) pleads his town's case. Gathering up her assistant Ben (Idris Elba, 28 Weeks Later) and a selection of supplies, Katherine heads down the Delta. Upon arriving, she discovers a tributary filled with sticky red fluid and a creepy kid named Lauren McConnell (AnnaSophia Robb, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). The locals think she's the child of the Devil. Katherine believes she's a misunderstood kid suffering at the hands of superstitious yokels. Even as frogs rain from the skies, perfectly healthy cows crumble from disease, and locusts run ramshackle over everything, our heroine is not convinced that The Bible's ten plagues are visiting the town. Even warnings from old associate Father Costigan (Stephen Rea, V for Vendetta) can't persuade her. It will take the sudden discovery of a dark, disturbing secret, and the near-end of days, to finally make this cynic sit up and take notice.
Why don't filmmakers and screenwriters see it? Why don't they recognize material when it comes out and psalms them to death? The Bible and its many good vs. evil showdowns is just one big blockbuster source waiting for the right individual to tap into its fire-and-brimstone bravado. Of course, it would require a literal leap of faith, and Tinseltown is not known for its pious belief in anything except cold hard cash. The answer may also be the man-goat himself. After all, Troma titan Lloyd Kaufman frequently refers to Hollywood as home to baby-eating, devil-worshipping Antichrists—and he directed Terror Firmer. With Hollywood so afraid of offending the converted and born again that they tend to drain any thoughtfulness out of cinematic stories surrounding religion, but more than willing to embrace arcane pagan perceptions when it comes to goosing God, a meandering movie like The Reaping is the result. What starts out as an intriguing update of Moses' famous Egyptian paybacks ends up a convoluted case study that Anton LaVey, Aleister Crowley, Kenneth Anger, and several members of the cast of Hannah Montana would have a hard time deciphering.
Part of the problem here is the heavy handed context. Star Hilary Swank's anti-water-into-wine work is played like The Da Vinci Code gone cracker. She had the calling at one time, and then gave it up to play biblical ghost buster. Her backstory is front-loaded with cynicism, soul-sickness, and a couple of dead family members to keep the pain nice and fresh. It's the same with able-bodied assistant Ben. He's an ex-gangbanging brute with the bad body art to prove it. Yet when rivals went all 50 Cent on him, spraying bullets into his torso like sequins on a country music star's sweater vest, he found faith while supporting skepticism. We are supposed to see actor Idris Elba as the African American yin to Swank's tight T-shirted college-prep yang, together forging an unstoppable investigation and information collective. Aside from an initial swing through South America, we never learn why they are experts in anything. They give good tech speak, and can throw out scientific assertions with the best of them. Show them a river soaked in gore or a literal rain of amphibians, and suddenly they turn into the Shell Answer Man's autistic brother with a bad case of brain fart.
The setup is also suspect. Thanks to our graven grade-schooler, an entire 21st century town—a place complete with Internet access, indoor plumbing, and evolution as part of the educational curriculum—suddenly wants to party like its 1699. They go so panicky Frankenstein villagers on the McConnell family, accusing them of everything from loose virtues to baby sacrificing, that you wonder how they managed to tolerate their moral terrorism for this long. Even worse, when confronted, Mama McConnell is like the fox who found the five-pointed star in the chicken coop. She practically screams "infant blood drinker"—and may literally do so, come to think about it. It creates a surreal dichotomy between good and astoundingly unbelievable. On the one hand, we have university based know-it-alls who dare to tamper in the Big Guy's domain. On the other, there's a bunch of bumpkins looking to have a Lucifer lynching in between the ice cream social and the crawfish boil. Stuck in the middle is an audience wondering why everyone can't just settle down and let special effects and competent filmmaking deliver the kind of epic Heaven vs. Hell beat down the premise promises. Instead, Stephen Hopkins pads the narrative with too many interpersonal doubts and red herring subplots to shiver our timbers.
In all seriousness, The Reaping is the motion-picture equivalent of the senior class skank who, while good at her core, comes to the prom pregnant, wasted, and carrying along her ex-con, non-baby-daddy date. It's a movie that, if made properly, could really become a stunning religious thriller. There's an Exorcist level of effectiveness inherent in the tale, a "power of Christ vs. the foulness of the fallen one" that could really be exploited. After all, who doesn't want to see pestilence pour from rotting sores, fly-infested livestock giving up the ghost, and little kids riddled with social pariah producing lice. It's every post-modern macabre fan's ultimate fantasy. But instead of chalking everything up to God, his vengeance, and a lack of human salvation, we have to go and get Stephen Rea (as far from The Crying Game as possible—except, perhaps, when he reacts to the scripts he's sent), his convoluted medieval demonology, and scenes of photographs spontaneously combusting. It's enough to make you drop everything and dial up the Smile of a Child network for a little evangelical equilibrium.The sad fact is, we stay tuned into and interested in this tripe until the end. We become involved in the story in a way that suggests that, along with the use of Legion as a catalyst, Beelzebub is playing some part in providing subliminal entertainment on the celluloid level as well.
>From the groan-inducing Southern Gothic (does every ex-Confederate collaborator have to celebrate its less-than-impressive past) and overexposed shots of bayou beauty (Louisiana may not be the hottest state, but it sure is bright), everything about The Reaping feels off by just a couple of big-ass belt-buckle notches. All the actors do fine work, especially Swank, who tries to sell this stuff like a used-car dealer on commission. For what he excuses as "vision," Hopkins helps his cause more than he hinders it. You'd figure a guy with two decades as a generic genre ace would have a better A-game than this, however. He lets moments with real meaning fade and die, while focusing far too much on flashbacks and conversation. In fact, The Reaping never "gets big," expanding its scope until the very end. Then it turns into The Devil's Rain without a ram-headed Ernest Borgnine chewing the scenery. In a clear case of a marginal macabre that could have been—nix that, should have been—much, much better, this is Armageddon for those who don't expect too much out from the eventual call to Judgment. Let's face it—when the plague of locusts sequence reminds you of the repellant Exorcist sequel, your fright film may be running out of overall efficacy.
Warner Brothers releases this Spring 2007 bomb in that weird, "who still wants it" flip-disc format. On one side, the original 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen image is offered. On the other, it's a full-screen fiasco all the way. Both prints are pristine, each one radiating a great deal of post-production visual tweaking. The details are strong and the contrasts excellently controlled. About the only issue one can have here is that the studio didn't take the opportunity to expand the presentation into an unrated or director's cut dynamic. Since every other digital packager does it, why the Brothers would opt out seems strange. As for the sound situation, we are treated to a compelling Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround mix. Since the movie relies on sonic cues to sell some of its scares, the multi-channel presentation complements it perfectly. Even better, the sinister score from John Frizzell comes across loud and clear. In the realm of added content, things are dicey at best. We get a look at the plagues themselves (as well as scientific explanations of same), an F/X overview of the locust shoot, a quaint Q&A with the cast, and a look at the location that passed for the town of Haven. It's all very puffy and pleasant. Naturally, none of it deals with the film's nine months on the shelf (it was supposed to roll out in August 2006). Some things just can't be explained.
Okay, so it doesn't get the Biblical plagues 100 percent right. So, it fudges with the concepts of Satanism for the sake of some narrative sensationalism. Granted, it could have been told with more attention to religious detail, and faith could have been embraced instead of swept under the rug like so many boiled peanut shells. But in the end, The Reaping is much better than its ridiculed reputation would suggest, while being just as dopey as dozens of other so-called macabres based on the Good Book. When you've got such strong scares as these, selling them in such an inconsequential way must really send the sanctified into fits of self-doubt. When Charleton Heston turned the Nile into an Earth-styled artery and Yul Brenner scoffed as fiery hailstones rained down on his mighty Empire, few found such Old Testament tricks laughable. Of course, they had the chutzpah of Cecil B. DeMille to move them along. Stephen Hopkins is no epic technician and The Reaping is no sample of sacred scope. It a pleasant, if problematic, 100-minute movie pit stop—nothing more or less.
Slightly guilty. It's worth a look, but not must else.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Science of the 10 Plagues: The Search for Scientific Explanations
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