'The Reaping': A Plague of CGI Effects

Ben (Idris Elba) investigates some murky goings-on in the swamp.
Ben (Idris Elba) investigates some murky goings-on in the swamp. (By Gene Page -- Warner Bros. Pictures)
By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, April 5, 2007

When rivers turn red, locusts swarm and cows shrivel into scorched beef, you know that either Al Gore was right or you're watching another bad supernatural thriller.

In this case, you are suffering through "The Reaping," a pretentious scarefest of plagues landing in theaters the week of Passover. And you are also wondering what compelled Hilary Swank -- a two-time Oscar winner no less -- to involve herself in this swampbound project.

The movie asks audiences to take deep stock in its often ludicrous melodrama of plagues visited upon a small Louisiana town, and the actions of Swank's missionary-turned-debunker, who is sent to investigate the mystery.

Locusts, frogs, maggots and other familiar pestilences from the book of Exodus are terrorizing the locals. The local swamp is brimming with blood. And a spooky blond girl -- with a permanently wide-eyed expression -- has been seen wading in it. She's Loren (AnnaSophia Robb), a local girl whose murder of her brother, the townsfolk of Haven believe, may have cursed the region.

Enter Katherine Winter (Swank), who specializes in debunking paranormal events. A former missionary who has lost her faith -- cue flashbacks of a Bad Experience in Africa -- she takes special pleasure in exposing those who see miracles where there are none. ("People keep believing," she sneers.)

Not minutes after she rolls into town, an old priest and friend (a listless Stephen Rea in a literally phoned-in cameo) calls to say that when you put photos of Katherine together -- apparently the old fella does this all the time -- mysterious burn marks on the pictures form the sign of a sickle.

What does this all mean? If only "The Reaping" had the decency to be coherent. Like Katherine, we are supposed to decipher these strange phenomena through a frenzied barrage of freaky images, obvious CGI effects and dizzying editing.

Watching "The Reaping" is like undergoing some Rorschach test from hell.

Audiences that appreciated the mix of gritty resolve and inner sensitivity Swank brought to better roles in "Boys Don't Cry" and "Million Dollar Baby" will see many of the same qualities here. But this time, her deft gestures and subtle inflections ring false -- thanks to a script that forces her to follow the cliches of the genre.

As Katherine, she gives her utmost, trying to show her evolution from cynic to supernatural vessel. But her relationships with Ben (Idris Elba), her trusty assistant debunker, and Doug (David Morrissey), the handsome schoolteacher, are etched in the dismissive shorthand of lazy scriptwriting. And a facts-of-life moment, clearly meant to be a tender union between Katherine and the otherworldly Loren, comes across as laughable.

No surprise: We never really care for Katherine. And when she interacts -- using a litany of expressions denoting fear, horror and heroic resolve -- with those shopworn montages of buzzing locusts and blinding light, the audience gets the disconcerting impression that she's not battling demonic spirits but the production's CGI department. At which point, any lingering emotional attachment we have to the movie takes its own winged flight, too.

The Reaping (96 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence, disturbing images and some sexual content.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company