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'We are witnessing biblical events!"
So yelps Ben (Idris Elba), a rattled tough guy (check out his bullet scars), as he and his boss, miracle-debunker Katherine Winter (Hilary Swank), run around the mossy bayous of the South.
Since arriving in sleepy Haven, La., the duo have been swarmed by locusts, pelted by frogs, freaked by dead cows, and grossed out by a lovely river turned to blood.
It's the plagues of Exodus, all right, and they're coming to a theater near you - just in time for Passover and Easter!
Although the rational, nonbeliever Katherine has a spotless track record - she's checked out 48 supposed miracles, proving each and every one to have a scientific basis - this one's going to be a toughie. Lice, check. Darkness, yup. Boils? Even the mayor's got 'em.
An effectively unsettling mix of Southern gothic and Old Testament hugger-mugger, with shades of The Exorcist and even Rosemary's Baby thrown in, The Reaping asks the question (it's right there in the ads): What hath God wrought?
If anyone's going to find out, it's two-time Oscar-winner Swank. First seen exploring the catacombs of a Chilean cathedral where a dead priest is said to have cured the blind and the crippled, the actress' Katherine is a one-time missionary who lost her faith in God and found it again in Science. Now she's a professor at Louisiana State University, lecturing kids with her PowerPoints and her pluck. Sign up here for Miracle Debunking 101.
So when a handsome schoolteacher (David Morrissey) arrives from Haven ("the best-kept secret in the Bible Belt"), with talk of the plagues, Katherine and her assistant, Ben, decide to take a look. (The handsome schoolteacher may have had something to do with her decision, too. As for Ben, he's resigned to a platonic relationship with Katherine, although he's made it clear that he's ready to go unplatonic at her earliest convenience.)
Katherine and Ben collect samples from the river, from the maggots, from the expired livestock and floating fish. They're a crack forensic team, surveying the crime scene for clues. The townsfolk, understandably spooked, have their own theory as to what's going on: A weirdo family on Haven's outskirts belongs to a cult - and its devil-worshipping ways are responsible for these horrors. The family's 12-year-old girl, Loren (AnnaSophia Robb, from Bridge to Terabithia), is said to have killed her older brother - dead first-borns are another of the plagues. The girl lurks ominously as Katherine combs the countryside. She even looks demonic - in a preteen hillbilly kind of way.
Director Stephen Hopkins knows how to make audiences jump (one of his credits: A Nightmare on Elm Street 5), and The Reaping jolts and jars like a good old scary movie. Peter Levy's cinematography is especially fine, with lush and startling overhead shots (a red river winding through the speckled green of bayou country).
Swank projects toughness and resolve - and also deep wounds of loss and grief (see the Sudan flashbacks). Elba, who starred as Stringer Bell in three seasons' worth of HBO's The Wire, is wry and muscular as her able assistant. Morrissey's a bit of a cypher, which makes you wonder what Swank's character sees in him. And little Robb has piercing blue eyes and the fewest of lines - it's her silence that makes her menacing.
No self-respecting Bible-themed horror flick can function without the presence of a priest, and here the job goes to Stephen Rea (no relation). His Father Costigan lives in a Philadelphia monastery. There are dire signs regarding the fate of Katherine, with whom he worked in Africa, and he appears now and again, eyes full of worry as he seizes a phone and says, "You're in great danger, Katherine."
Contact movie critic Steven Rea
at 215-854-5628 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog, "On Movies Online," at http://go.philly.com/onmovies.