There’s something oddly comforting about a mainstream Hollywood production arguing in favor of a murderous deity, as if, in its wild fanaticism, it finally puts to bed the notion that the motion picture industry is a wasteland of loony skeptics and snooty scientists. On a person-by-person basis, movie stars and the like tend to vote Democratic and stand obnoxiously for pet liberal causes, but I’ve always believed the business itself to be suffocating in its conservatism; playing it safe, relying on the dull and formulaic, and above all, insisting on uplift and redemption, even at the expense of good storytelling. Radicalism simply doesn’t exist at the movies, and whenever an unholy mess like The Reaping hits theaters, it proves conclusively that when allowed free reign, they will choose judgment and wrath above all else. Needless to say, the film offers little more than a slapdash thrill, managing to squeeze in a child’s corpse or two to keep things interesting, but over its seemingly endless 96 minutes, it fails to generate any real heat. Sure, there are Satanists, mangled limbs, bodies on slabs, and hysterical womenfolk begging to have their wee ones carved and sliced like roast beef, but it’s all so ho-hum that I nodded off a time or two without giving a shit what I had missed. Yes, the rural Louisiana town of Haven is a site for Good versus Evil, but it is not the battle for all time, and despite the thunderclaps, blackened sky, bolts of lightning, and righteous chaos, the world goes on, even hinting at a sequel that no one will ask for, but we just as surely will receive.
As with all films of this type, there is a “non-believer” (Katherine, played by a slumming Hilary Swank) who is not exactly an atheist, but chooses to reject God because her husband and daughter were butchered in the Sudan by holy rollers who blamed the region’s drought on their presence. Hollywood cannot handle genuine atheism, as that would force them to show well-reasoned, logical people who came to their understanding of the universe through study and research, rather than simply reacting like spoiled children to life’s cruelty. So while Katherine is their idea of what godlessness looks like, she is nothing more than a religious fanatic who has taken a brief holiday from belief until the pain goes away. In that sense, she is but a rainbow and rescued kitten away from embracing the Lord once again. No script would dare allow such a woman to begin and end the story without a conversion, so we simply wait while this “skeptic” has her heart turned back to belief by a series of inexplicable events. You see, she left the missionary life to enter the field of education (she teaches at Louisiana State University, the sinful harlot), and when we first meet her, she is showing a class how all so-called “miracles” (usually in the Third World, where every animal, vegetable, and mineral has, at one time or another, been transformed into a source of godly healing) have a scientific explanation — in this particular case, buried toxic waste and methane gas that cause hallucinations, which are mistaken for communiqués with Jesus. As she proudly states, she’s traveled around the world to witness 48 miraculous events, and has cleanly and brilliantly exposed them all. It’s a perfect record, needless to say, that won’t dare stand. It’s good to know that people like me are but one burning bush away from running to church.
Katherine’s latest investigation is spurred on by a former colleague in the religious game, one Father Costigan (Stephen Rea), a wholly devoted sort who believes that God is sending him messages that Katherine’s life is in danger — or something. Pictures burn, symbols appear, and evil is clearly about, but I had no idea what the fuck Costigan was yammering about, though I did chuckle when the flames from the photos engulfed his room, and he was left pounding and screaming at the door. It’s a great movie death, if only because it quickly dispatches with a character that had no business being in the screenplay to begin with. But Katherine, despite thinking her old friend has lost his marbles, decides to take the case, bringing along her black sidekick, Ben (Idris Elba), who surely stands as one of the least developed characters in a motion picture history. He wears a cross around his neck and needles Katherine now and again about her hostility to God, but as he is not Caucasian, he will eventually die off-screen, though he will be allowed a rock to the skull in a flashback. It’s one of the movie’s brief flirtations with originality that he not become Katherine’s love interest, though that may be a sign of its buried racism, as Oscar winners rarely cross over to the other side of the sexual fence. Dark meat, it seems, remains an indie indulgence. Still, Katherine does have a man waiting for her, the dashing Doug (David Morrissey), a rugged, deep-fried old boy who has also experienced loss (his wife died of cancer at the tender age of 28) and seems willing to bring her to orgasm, at least for a night. So at least she’s one up on Mrs. Cale.
Still, the infallible Law of Economy of Characters holds true once again, so we know that Doug is no mere hunk of distraction; he has a secret or two to reveal, one of which is his status as head of the local chapter of Satan worshipers. This comes in the final act, but he has no other reason to be, so we watch him with one eye open, knowing it’s a matter of time before his big speech about God’s villainy, or the allure of the darkness. And so this speech comes, in a graveyard, as the final plagues wreak havoc on the earth, and he pleads with Katherine to see how God has abandoned his children, and that the devil is the only way to true liberation. It’s an interesting proposal, but as a belief in Satan necessitates a belief in God, it won’t wash in any universe worth understanding. If you must know how the two got to this point, there’s an evil little girl running around (Loren, played by AnnaSophia Robb) who is believed to be responsible for the assorted plagues and such, and terrified townspeople want to find her and kill her once and for all. After all, did she not kill the young boy by the river? Doug is most interested in seeing her die, but as expected, the girl is in fact an Angel of the Lord, sent by God Our Father to save humanity from this evil band of the Underworld. Doug and his people knew this when the boy killed at the river tried to stab her, and the wound closed right up rather than sending the little brat to her grave. As such, she had to die at the hands of a believer (which Doug is not, as he worships the devil), which means Katherine has to be the one to perform the deed. But not until she accepts the big guy once again! The only miracle I can see at this point is my failure to drop from a fucking brain aneurysm.
Katherine has seen the boils and the locusts and the symbols carved on the backs of the dead, so she’s starting to see the light, but at that moment in the graveyard, she comes full circle, telling Doug where to get off and admitting that no, God did not kill her family. Instead, they met their fate at the hands of a cowardly, godless man! I’m not sure Africa’s awash in atheism (if it were, perhaps female genital mutilation would disappear, and influential dipshits wouldn’t continue to argue that HIV does not cause AIDS), but it’s a comforting thought for the poor girl, as she now has firm evidence that God smites the unworthy and rescues humanity in the nick of time, though apparently her loved ones did not factor into that grand scheme. It’s just something she’ll have to live with. But as Christians seem to have no problem explaining away the fiery, scream-filled deaths of preschool children as part of something wonderful and pure, Katherine’s life is bound to be peaceful from now on. Only there’s that demon seed to worry about. Yes, during their single night of passionate lovemaking (which the film shows again in flashback, forcing my second chuckle of the evening), Katherine was impregnated, which means — according to rules and regulations that are of no interest to anyone, especially someone fortunate enough not to have seen the movie — that she holds in her uterus the “perfect child,” the son of Satan. Still, one wonders why the filmmakers insisted on such dramatic music during this “shocking” revelation (the angel girl is the one to tell her), as Katherine is but an hour or so away from an abortion clinic, is she not? Oh, that’s right, this is Louisiana. My mistake. Ah yes, leave it to the pro-lifers to force upon us humanity’s end by refusing to allow a desperate woman to terminate the dark prince in the womb. Now that’s a sequel worth seeing.