“The Reaping” is so beneath Hilary Swank, let alone two-time Academy Award winner Hilary Swank. It’s a highfalutin hodgepodge of biblical mumbo jumbo, more likely to inspire laughter than fear.
Swank stars in a role that any attractive actress her age could have played as professor Katherine Winter, who debunks supposed examples of miracles using scientific explanations. It essentially requires her to run around the Louisiana swamps in tousled blonde hair and clingy tank tops, trying to understand an increasingly intense series of supernatural phenomena.
Despite her unquestionable ability to immerse herself in a role, as she earned Oscars for in “Boys Don’t Cry” and “Million Dollar Baby,” Swank can only go so deep when the material is this shallow.
It seems a little girl named Loren (the angelically creepy AnnaSophia Robb from “Bridge to Terabithia”) has brought the 10 plagues upon a tiny bayou town known as Haven (of course). Katherine and her investigative partner at LSU (Idris Elba) snoop around and try to prove otherwise.
The locals, meanwhile, watch and worry. They gather on sidewalks and whisper to each other and are generally depicted as folksy, backward and closed-minded. (Hasn’t Louisiana suffered enough?)
David Morrissey co-stars as the widower who beseeches Katherine to save Haven, with Steven Rea squandered in a couple of scenes as the faraway priest who knew Katherine long ago and senses that she’s in danger, based on some stuff in his office spontaneously combusting.
Once you get past the frogs, maggots and flies you’re left to squirm and wonder: Are they really going to run through all 10? Of course they are. Director Stephen Hopkins comes up with a couple of decent scares — and the locust attack is admittedly impressive — but the rest is just atmosphere and bombast.
Peter Levy provides some striking cinematography — all that blood-red river water contrasting sharply with the lush greenery surrounding it — while other effects, including the climactic killing of the firstborns, look just plain cheesy. The fifth plague, dead livestock, also offers some unintentional hilarity.
But the bigger problem in the script from twin brothers Cary W. Hayes and Chad Hayes (who also wrote the Paris Hilton remake of “House of Wax,” say no more) is that it lacks a strong narrative drive. It feels more like a series of occurrences that are intended as eerie, and will eventually come to an end.
Also, it’s an entirely too convenient coincidence that Katherine had a daughter about the same age as Loren, who died during a mission in the Sudan along with Katherine’s husband. That event shattered her faith — she used to be a minister — and turned her into the professor of skepticism she’s since become.
“The Reaping” tries to frighten us through our most intimate, personal beliefs about spirituality, or perhaps the lack thereof. It is clearly aiming for a vibe of religious gravitas in the vein of “The Exorcist” or “The Omen.” Instead, it’s more in the vicinity of “The Wicker Man,” where Nicolas Cage investigated the disappearance of a little girl on a pagan island, or “Stigmata,” in which Patricia Arquette looked beautiful while bleeding from the wrists.