In the modern search for answers, science and religion are often made to be opposing forces, either/or explanations that can't coexist.
Both are profound, frequently misunderstood, and -- to someone whose exposure to them came only from horror thrillers such as "The Reaping" -- good for little more than making followers of either look like addle-pated crazies.
Hilary Swank plays a disillusioned investigator of the supernatural, a sort of agnostic "Mythbuster" who, along with her believer partner Idris Elba, spend their time between university lectures jetting off to debunk spiritual visions, the miraculous preservation of dead priests, and, presumably, the appearance of Jesus' face on slices of toast.
After another successful trip to Colombia, where an ostensible miracle is revealed to be nothing more than corporate shenanigans (take that, o ye faithful!), and then a good deal of doofy exposition, Swank is contacted by a science teacher (David Morrissey) about a phenomenon a little closer to home. A small town in Louisiana has found itself faced with a literal river of blood, a plague you might remember from such works as the Bible.
Swank is a clear-headed scientist, so of course she's ready with a logical theory on why a whole river turns red, but before they can finish screwing the caps on their samples more plagues hit the town -- frogs, flies, dead livestock. Swank reels off a Discovery Channel rationalization for the Ten Plagues of Egypt, then sets to investigating the ongoing events and the little girl rumored to have started them all.
In the course of her work, which frankly is a little on the incompetent, stumbling-around side, Swank suffers a number of flashbacks from her early days as a dyed-in-the-wool missionary in Africa, and the tragedy that claimed her husband and daughter and turned her away from God.
The plagues of "The Reaping" are its big draw, and for a while they do them well, counting them off with an effective creepiness that could well be either perfectly scientific or the work of a ticked off Lord.
Meanwhile, Swank and Elba are both talented actors without a whole lot to dig into other than collecting samples, poring over evidence, and roaming around the woods. Elba manages some hints at charisma despite being reduced to little more than a hard luck inner-city kid who turned his life around after his wicked ways nearly claimed his life. In case that feels a little played, you'll be treated to the undeniable street cred of bullet scars and prison tats.
The movie's deep seams show fast and hard once it becomes time to start explaining its mysteries. The plague of crawling locusts is admittedly cool, the kind of thing that makes me slap my skin, but the accompanying triple-thick mythology of Satanism and arbitrary prophecy are more liable to send one's slaps at one's knees.
Yessir, science loses in a hurry once the movie can delay things no longer, hoping a delightful blend of backstory and explosions can distract attention from the fact none of it makes a lick of sense.
"The Reaping" wraps up with a twist that's more of a screw. Its "Well doesn't this change things and maybe open the door for a sequel!" ending raises more questions than it answers -- and not the good kind, like "How do people maintain their faith through personal tragedy?" but the other kind, like "How dumb does this movie think I am?"