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When the river that runs through Haven, La., turns to blood, professor Katherine Winter says it's bacteria that's turned the water red. When dead frogs come floating down, she dismisses them as victims of out-of-control pH levels in the water. It's the same with swarming flies and dead livestock: There's a scientific explanation for both.
This is what Katherine does. She investigates seemingly supernatural phenomena and provides rational, scientific justification for them. As The Reaping opens, her track record is quite good: "Forty-eight 'miraculous' occurrences I've investigated; 48 scientific explanations," she brags. "The only miracle is that people keep believing." It turns out that Katherine has a vested interest in denying God's hand in the world. Once an ordained minister, she developed a serious resentment toward the Almighty when her husband and daughter were murdered while the family served as missionaries in Africa.
Katherine's pretty successful at keeping God at arm's length—until she and her co-worker, Ben, get called to the secluded town of Haven to investigate what seems to be a recurrence of the 10 biblical plagues. She and Ben are summoned by a man named Doug who is familiar with Katherine's work and who hopes she'll be able to explain (or explain away) the strange happenings in his town. Once on the scene, Katherine ticks off the first four plagues in her typical manner. But by the time the lice and boils show up, even she is beginning to doubt her naturalistic proclamations.
Her doubt is owed in part to 12-year-old Loren McConnell, who is under the suspicious eyes of all her neighbors because she was discovered with her older brother's dead body—by the river just before it ran red. It seems that the girl is causing, even wielding, the plagues for her own defense and for the destruction of her family and neighbors.
The Reaping emphasizes just how much Katherine loved her husband and daughter. And it's her memories of her daughter that help her to choose wisely in a crucial decision.
Though Katherine is given every reason to dislike—and even fear—Loren, she still tries to befriend the girl and gain her trust. She goes to great lengths to believe the best about her, even when the leaders of Haven accuse the girl of terrible evil.
In the end, Katherine recognizes that she has been unfairly blaming God for what happened to her family, and she refuses to act in anger against the Lord.
The Reaping lifts the plagues of the Hebrew exodus out of their context and sets them down in present-day rural Louisiana. They are very similar to what we might imagine the original ones looked like, though sometimes their order is changed, or two plagues are conflated to make them play better onscreen.
Because of her skeptical, scientific approach, Katherine is castigated by an old woman who thinks the situation is truly miraculous. "Only the devil would try to stop a miracle of God," the lady says in Spanish. Katherine retorts, "I don't believe in him either." Katherine doesn't believe in the Bible, anymore. And she explains to Doug that after her family was killed, the first night she stopped praying to God was the first night she was able to sleep.
In contrast to Katherine, Ben says he's a churchgoing man, and that he started attending 10 years earlier, when God miraculously saved him from multiple gunshot wounds. He sports tattoos of Jesus and the cross. And at one point he tells Katherine that God is protecting her, even if she doesn't know it yet. In his explanation of the 10 biblical plagues, Ben is right when he says, "God sent the plagues to warn the Pharaoh," but he fails to communicate the whole story when he says Pharaoh's sorcerers matched Moses and Aaron, plague for plague. (Exodus 8:18 tells us that the magicians were bested by the third plague.)
Many times during the film, Katherine's memory flashes back to her time spent as a missionary in the Sudan with her family. There, they worked with a priest. In one of the flashbacks, a man is seen praying the rosary. In others, villagers are shown preparing to make a blood sacrifice to their gods (or to God—we're not really sure). Katherine tells one of them, "Sacrificing that animal won't help your crop."
The scenes from Haven are distinctly different from the African flashbacks and can best be summed up by the snippet of a radio sermon Ben and Katherine hear as they drive into town: "Jesus is the food on your table, the gas in your car. He's the beer in your bottle and the bullets in your gun." Yes, this is stereotypical backwoods religion at its "finest": one part Bible, one part prejudice and a pinch of superstition. Church signs read, "What are you waiting for? The Lord don't have all day," and "Our Lord's a gentle Lord ... but don't push it." The mayor comments to Katherine that "some folks just don't wanna go to hell," implying that she does. Doug tells Katherine that Loren's father was a traveling preacher who only stayed around long enough to leave her mother in a mess.
As she works toward the resolution of the plague mystery, Katherine discovers increasingly disturbing things associated with a Satanic cult, such as child sacrifice and mass murder. Each time Katherine touches Loren, she has a quick, surreal vision of the death and occult rituals that have surrounded the girl. The emblem of an upside-down sickle is often associated with the cult's activity. Reference is made to a supposed prophecy predating Christ that says an angel will come and stop the cult. Characters speculate on who this angel is, and someone says that only a servant of God can kill His angel. The prophecy also speaks of a child "born in the image of Satan." One man says that the cult once believed in God, but he introduced them to a better master: Satan.
Much is made of the fact that Loren is coming of age. To show that this is the case, the girl is seen several times with a flow of menstrual blood running down her leg.
Katherine wears a low-cut tank top. The camera goes in for extreme close-ups of Katherine's back, belly and arms while she's having sex. Sexual motions are obvious. This appears to be a dream sequence, and there are so many quick cuts that it's not clear immediately who the man is, though the audience is perhaps meant to assume that Katherine is having a flashback to an encounter with her late husband David.
[Spoiler Warning] It turns out that the scene is choppy because Katherine is drunk and isn't sure herself what's going on. What's actually taking place is that she's in bed with Doug. Given the fact that he intentionally got her drunk, it can be argued that he's raping her. We see the scene again at the end of the film and find out that she is pregnant with his child.
The depictions of the plagues are predictably disgusting: a whole river is turned to blood. Huge dead frogs crash into the river with noises like gunshots. People break out in boils so bad that they die from them. Likewise, locusts, which are usually just a nuisance, arrive with such force that several men are left dead in their wake. A cow, mad with the plague, attacks the truck that Doug and Katherine are in. The plague on the firstborn children kills them with a blinding flash of light.
As Katherine investigates the occult activity surrounding Loren, things get increasingly macabre. First, Loren is hiding in a tree and suddenly reaches out and grabs Katherine by the face, knocking her to the ground. Then we see Loren's dead brother, Brody. It was reported that his body was without a scar, but within three days, it has mysteriously decayed to the point of resembling a body that's been in the ground for a year. Later, Loren jumps on her mother and bites her. Someone is stabbed, but the wound miraculously heals. The cult makes a practice of killing children. (We don't actually see it, but it is discussed, as is animal sacrifice.) And we see the skulls of hundreds of dead children.
One character sticks a gun in her mouth and kills herself. Another is trapped in a burning room and killed. A third is killed in a basement, but we don't see the act take place, only the already-dead body. [Spoiler Warning] Convinced that Loren is the one leading the Satanic activity, Katherine goes after her with a dagger—but doesn't end up killing the girl.
Still in the Sudan as the film opens, Father Michael has a strange experience. All the photos of Katherine in his house spontaneously burn—not the whole photo, just a hole through Katherine's face. People suffering from a chemical spill shake strangely and their pupils are widely dilated. As Katherine investigates, she is grabbed and pulled through a hatch. The body of a monk who's been dead 40 years is exhumed by seismic activity. The corpse is shown to be well preserved, with only a strange slimy coating over still-supple skin.
Crude or Profane Language
One f-word and one s-word pop up. And there are a half-dozen or more uses of "d--n," once in conjunction with God's name. Speaking of which—there are many uses of God's name, but only a couple of instances of it being taken in vain. Almost every reference to God is someone talking about Him or to Him. Hell is also spoken of, but always as a literal place and not as a swear word.
Drug and Alcohol Content
Katherine teases Ben that she didn't bring him back a beer when she went to the kitchen because he didn't pray hard enough. Katherine discovers that Doug's a widower when she finds him standing at his late wife's grave, drinking and talking to the headstone. He offers Katherine some of the local brew, and she ends up getting drunk.
Other Negative Elements
With so many movies doing their best to sideline God and twist the supernatural, it's a bit surprising that The Reaping goes so far out of its way to accept the existence and activity of both God and Satan. Beyond that, the heroine makes a positive turn from denying God to acknowledging him.
But don't start thinking that Hilary Swank's Katherine is now somehow poised to dethrone Charlton Heston's Moses. The connection here between God and the onscreen plagues He's supposed to have caused is ambiguous and does little to expose viewers to His true character. Plus, the mystery surrounding the Satanism leaves just as strong an impression—or perhaps an even stronger one. I'm not saying that there's nothing redemptive about The Reaping. Only that the good that's there will mostly likely be swallowed up in moviegoers' minds by a farfetched and R-rated river of blood. And flies. And locusts. And lice. And frogs...
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Hilary Swank as Katherine Winter; David Morrissey as Doug; Idris Elba as Ben; AnnaSophia Robb as Loren McConnell; William Ragsdale as Sheriff Cade; John McConnell as Mayor Brooks; Stephen Rea as Father Michael Costigan