(Movie Review by Richard Lewis) It is not every day you get to visit with a two-time Academy Award winner. By all accounts, Hilary Swank is just as down to Earth and approachable in person as she appears to be in her films. She is the quintessential girl next door (although I must say that if I lived next door to Hilary Swank, I would probably never leave home), and success does not seem to have fazed this down-home gal. She has not forgotten her humble Nebraska roots, and talks about such things as mamma, pecan pie, and public transportation. That’s right, if you are reading this on the metro that may very well be Hilary Swank riding next to you. No kidding. Go ahead and say hello. She will not mind. Hilary Swank is a people person.
Of course she also has a lot to say about her new film “The Reaping”, a supernatural thriller set in the Deep South. “I like smart thrillers,” says Swank. From the moment she first began reading the script, Swank says she was hooked. “It was a page-turner. I thought it was a truly scary story while also being smart and dramatic and there are real human moments in this story.”
In “The Reaping”, Swank plays Katherine Winter, a former minister who has lost her faith. Of course this is not a novel concept. “Signs”, “The Prophecy”, and “From Dusk ‘Till Dawn” are but a few examples of films in which people of the cloth lose there faith only to regain it in order to fight the forces of darkness, or at least to acknowledge the power of good over evil.
Winter has lost her faith due to the death of her husband and son while the family was on missionary duty in the Sudan. Although this is a big-budget Hollywood film, Swank turns in a very subtle and human performance. She also manages to show us a certain vulnerability along the way. She’s such a fine actor — “Boys Don’t Cry”, “Million Dollar Baby” — we must never take her performances for granted. She is just so natural though, that we sometimes forget. She almost makes it look too easy.
In “The Reaping”, Winter takes her miracle-debunking self to a small town in Louisiana that is being tormented by what appears to be the Biblical plagues of the Bible, all seeming to stem from an enigmatic little girl named Loren McConnel (AnnaSophia Robb). McConnel has such annoying habits as turning water into blood and sending hordes of locusts after the townspeople. In all fairness to the nearly mute McConnel, they are trying to kill her. The townsfolk say they only want her dead so the madness will end, but that just does not add up.
The story traces the plagues, one by one. The terrors will surely continue mounting until eventually death of the firstborn and fire from heaven will follow. I was thinking a cameo by the legendary Charlton Heston would have been a nice touch here. (Heston did do a cameo for Tim Burton’s “Planet of the Apes” remake, one of the few things in that movie to smile about.) As Moses from “The Ten Commandments”, Heston would have surely told the girl, in a thundering voice, to let his people go. These days, though, Heston would probably have simply shown up wearing an NRA hat and just put a few slugs into the child.
With all the supernatural overtones in the film, I asked Swank if she was a spiritual person in real life. “Yes,” she replies, “I am spiritual. I believe in a higher power.” Swank goes on to admit she was not baptized or anything while in Baton Rouge filming “The Reaping”. She was, however, immersed in the culture, food, and true Southern hospitality. Swank goes on to praise the filmmakers, who persisted in completing the movie despite the fact that Hurricane Katrina had brought the production to a halt. “They finished the film, which helped provide jobs and hope to the people of Louisiana.”
As a Southerner myself, I must say that the South as portrayed in “The Reaping” is not the real South. This is the Hollywood version. It is a place where everyone drives a pick-up truck when not shrinking in fear of some wild superstition. Seriously, the only sedans seen throughout the movie are the cruisers driven by the police. Come on. Filmmakers usually at least give my kinfolk a few muscle cars to zoom around in, or at least throw in a 1970’s Chevelle or Mustang, for crying out loud.
And for the record, we southerners do not sacrifice our children in bizarre religious ceremonies. Also, I have been to a lot of Southern Baptist churches in my day, and I must tell you that I never once saw a church adorned with stained glass windows featuring people burning in hell. If you want to see a more authentic representation of the South, I recommend you check out “Black Snake Moan”, still in theaters, and a far superior film (admittedly, I am comparing apples to oranges).
Where “The Reaping” succeeds is in setting a mood. And there are a few good jolts, provided mostly by the sound effects and quick-cut editing. There is also an ominous feeling throughout, much like the original “Omen”, “The Exorcist”, or other such films of the genre. Although personally I did not find “The Reaping” to be very scary, or in any way deserving of its R Rating. Director Stephen Hopkins (“The Ghost and the Darkness”) is also puzzled by the rating, but chalks it up to the Biblical overtones in the film, not to mention an overly sensitive MPAA board.
“The Reaping” does deliver as a genuinely entertaining popcorn flick. We should expect no less from producer Joel Silver, who has brought us such blockbuster franchises as “The Matrix”, “Lethal Weapon”, and “Die Hard” films. Previously, Silver and Hopkins have teamed for other projects, including the enjoyable “Predator 2” starring Danny Glover. Although the prolific Silver must create quite a buzz while on set, Hopkins says Silver never interfered with his directing, and was very supportive throughout.
The charming Idris Elba plays Ben, Winter’s best friend and partner. A devout Christian, Ben goes along on the journey to strengthen rather than debunk his faith. In person, Elba’s British accent is quite disarming. You are reminded that it is his American dialect in the film that is the act. (I am really looking forward to Elba’s upcoming role in the horror thriller “28 Weeks Later”, due out in May; it is the sequel to director Danny Boyle’s excellent zombie flick “28 Days Later”.) The supernatural element in “The Reaping” is intriguing to Elba, who does believe in ghosts, although he found himself much more creep out by the very real flying locusts used in the film. Elba recoils, claiming the insects were as big as his cell phone. Swank just laughs at Elba’s phobia.
As McConnell, AnnaSophia Robb is captivating. The young actress barely turned 12 as production wrapped, but she is already a veteran player in her own right, having had roles in such films as the recent “Bridge to Terabithia” and Tim Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”. Robb has very few lines in “The Reaping”, but still manages to light up the screen every time the camera focuses on her character. Of course we have all seen the evil child concept presented in movies before, but there is something very different going on in here. To say more would give the whole thing away.
“The Reaping” held my interest, and I found myself regretting the massive amount of Diet Coke I consumed during the film. Holding my bladder to the closing credits seemed nearly as daunting as braving the Biblical plagues in the movie. Although I am not sure the finale was really worth the wait, since the filmmakers basically give us the same ending we already saw in “Raiders of the Lost Ark”.
Swank has slimmed down quite a bit from all the muscle she packed on for “Million Dollar Baby”. Although still very fit, she appears quite soft and feminine, with some surprising and appealing curves. I must say, seeing her run around throughout most of the film in a tank top is what really kept me glued to my seat (Lara Croft ain’t got nothin’ on Swank). I even told her how terrific I thought she looked. She just smiled and said sincerely, “Thanks! Thanks a lot!”
All the other journalists assembled in the room started laughing as Swank just kept smiling at me. That is about the reaction I would expect from a down-home Nebraska girl. Maybe next time I’ll bring along some Southern iced tea and collard greens for her.
Stephen Hopkins (director) / Chad Hayes, Brian Rousso (screenplay)
CAST: Hilary Swank … Katherine Winter
David Morrissey … Doug
Idris Elba … Ben
AnnaSophia Robb … Loren McConnell
Stephen Rea … Father Costigan
William Ragsdale … Sheriff Cade
John McConnell … Mayor Brooks