Directed by Stephen Hopkins
Having lost her faith in God due to a family tragedy (natch), resolute Katherine Winter (Swank) has dedicated herself to debunking supernatural phenomena, particularly those related to religion. And we’re not talking about “Jesus appeared on my toast!”-level accounts. Winter attacks the big guns – incidents with widespread effects – with voracious commitment and reliable scientific know-how. By her side is ex-gang banger, Ben (amiable Idris Elba), who acts as a yin to her yang, a believing Fox Mulder to her pessimistic Dana Scully. He’s a cool glass of welcome personality next to Swank/Winter’s rigid, distant attitude. Together, they’re called upon a teacher (David Morrissey channeling his best Liam Neeson impression) to visit a God-fearin’ idyllic Louisiana town. There, a teenage boy has been found dead in the swamp and the locals believe they’re experiencing some divine mayhem as a result. And out there in the bayou, a blonde-haired, wide-eyed ragamuffin (AnnaSophia Robb) is taking all the heat for the local wonky occurrences.
Screenwriters Chad and Carey Hayes – working from a story by Brian Rousso – lay the groundwork for Winter and Ben’s chemistry as fast as they can to make room for the convoluted story exposition, mystery-unraveling and rogue’s gallery of bible-thumpers that follows. Because of this, their personalities are crucified in lieu of rather nifty plague set pieces that don’t come as fast as they should. The locust sequence, admittedly, is effective and the introduction to diseased livestock delivers a jolt. Enough with the CGI flies, though. It didn’t work in “The Amityville Horror” remake and it doesn’t work here.
Outside of the occasional “Exorcist: The Beginning”-like flashbacks of Winter’s personal catastrophe (a cinematic crutch for screenwriters looking to portray those who have “lost their way”), breathing room for true moments of empathic character connection are all but lost. Granted, everyone’s got a weepy backstory to tell, but neither the writers nor the actors sell what they’re preaching. The nature of good versus evil, more importantly, is buried along the way as well, mired in Winter’s investigation that takes her through impressive and appropriately atmospheric swampland and weathered plantations. It’s not until the third act that the “eternal battle” re-enters the picture; by then, however, silly twists and turns skewer what could be a true shocker crescendo.
Director Stephen Hopkins, who first partnered with Silver on “Predator 2” and a handful of “Tales from the Crypt” episodes, goes with the flow maintaining his resume of slick productions (“Ghost in the Darkness,” “Lost in Space”) with little personal identity. The pacing is uneven and logic takes a backseat (why this small Louisiana town, where the river has turned to blood, doesn’t receive any media coverage is puzzling). To Hopkins’ credit, however, you’ve got to hand it to him for putting William Ragsdale (of the “Fright Night” films) back on the horror map and roping in poker-faced Stephen Rea as a man of the cloth who is, on occasion, given a sign of imminent danger through burning photographs. In the end, these warnings don’t align with the film’s end thus negating Rea’s participation.
As is the Silver way, “The Reaping” boasts a big premise. Consequently, this kills any chances of being a frightening flick. Credit goes to the Hayes brothers for flirting with some dark territory as Winter’s journey takes a detour. Ultimately, none of it descends into the depths of the contemplative what-ifs “The Exorcist” posed with severe gravity and it doesn’t feel like “The Reaping” wants to serve any other purpose than to awe the viewer with its decent cast and FX. Even with these enticing offerings, in the end, it’s just a bunch of hogwash that doesn’t make you a believer.