The Reaping (2007) is set south of Baton Rouge, supposedly in or near the swamps and bayous of Southern Louisiana. This is a Gothic film of the supernatural, and the rural Louisiana setting with swamp water and hanging moss and an isolated small town that no one has ever heard of named Haven evokes a spooky, mysterious setting. In fact, this story could be set anywhere—nothing in it is specific to Louisiana or the South. The supernatural trappings are generic—we could be in New England or Oregon.
The South in this film explains the willingness of the townspeople to believe that strange happenings are manifestations of demonic activity, and that a twelve-year-old girl is at their center. Haven is untouched by the outside world—the townspeople like their isolation. The first image we see when we arrive in the town is a religious sign. The main character Katherine (Hillary Swank) is the representative of enlightened reason, but she also has a gripe with God, whom she blames for killing her husband and daughter.
Katherine teaches at LSU and her specialty is debunking miracles—proving they have a rational explanation. Five years earlier she went to Africa as a newly ordained minister to do missionary work with her husband and five year old daughter. The husband and daughter were killed by African villagers who blamed them for a drought. In response, Katherine loses her faith. She works with an African American man, Ben (Idris Elba), who is deeply religious, primarily because he miraculously survived a gang shooting when he was younger. The interplay of faith vs. reason, of Katherine vs. Ben and the villagers, gives the film some interest, for a while. But you can predict where things will take us. Mainly this film is a hackneyed mess.
The local science teacher (David Morrissey) summons Katherine to Haven when strange events begin taking place: a boy dies mysteriously; cows become ill without explanation, two miles of the local river runs red with what appears to be blood. The townspeople believe there is a cult worshipping the devil out in the woods, and that the 12-year-old is responsible for all that is happening to them. Katherine believes a bacterial infection, or pollution, is to blame. One event leads to another, and it soon appears that the same ten plagues that besieged ancient Egypt are assaulting the town, that God is trying to send some kind of warning or message, that something portentous is about to occur. Katherine soon gives up on reason and is convinced over the phone by a priest she knew in Africa that she is God's angel appointed to resist a satanic plot. There are surprises and twists and turns in the plot, but you expect such twists and turns in this kind of film even if you don't know what they will be.
We have our obligatory scenes in a graveyard, in a crypt, in a mysterious locked room, in a dark and ominous basement which of course Katherine doesn't hesitate to explore. Ben is the film's one African-American character, and as such we know he must die—the only question is when.
I was reminded of Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," of the early Stephen King, of Nathanael Hawthorne's "Young Goodman Brown," of Ira Levin's Rosemary's Baby. Mostly I was reminded that the film could not last forever.