There are, apparently, two Hilary Swanks. There's the tough-as-nails tomboy, willing to pick a fight with anyone of any gender, so long as she wins an Oscar for it. Then there's the sci-fi action hero hottie who, in order to sell tickets to her unwatchably bad films, poses for "Androgynous? Hell no!" photo spreads in Esquire, Maxim or any men's magazine that'll have her. The latter Swank shows up in The Reaping, a movie which even by the standards of her center-of-the-earth turkey The Core is as moldy and desperate a bid for blockbuster status as they come.
The film's marketing oh-so-tastefully plays up its religious leanings with a "What hath God wrought?" tagline adorning its depiction of the 10 plagues just in time for Passover! visited upon a small Louisiana town. Before you can say "boils and lice," science professor Katherine (Swank) and her platonic research buddy Ben (The Wire's Idris Elba, turning in a performance far more nuanced than his thankless role deserves) drive down to the literally godforsaken sinkhole to take some pH samples of their river of blood, dissect some bloated, airborne frogs and poke at the corpse of a boy in full rigor mortis (looking curiously but not scarily like Edvard Munch's "The Scream").
The movie reaches the apex of kitsch early on, when Katherine, having almost been killed by a pestilent steer, puts down her specimen cup to offer logical explanations for each of the original plagues of Egypt. As for this new phenomenon, she helpfully explains, "It's probably pfiesteria." Nothing thereafter is as Mystery Science Theater-worthy, although the movie does offer up some of the worst special effects this side of the original Amityville Horror, not to mention the most incomprehensible editing to be seen in a major studio picture in years. There's nothing worse than a chase scene interrupted by a flashback, unless that flashback is embedded in a supernatural vision that ends up being a dream within a dream. Still, the locusts, when they finally arrive, end up being pretty damn cool.
Jodie Foster, another two-time Oscar-winning tomboy, would never agree to a script like this, but if she did, you can bet she would bring some conviction to the part, and at least act the hell out it (for proof, rent the nonsensical Flightplan). But Swank sleepwalks through The Reaping, doing most of her acting with her gaping jaw. She (or more appropriately, her agent) obviously considers herself to be in the Foster mold. So what persuades her to take a movie like this? It's probably pfiesteria.
Michael Hastings writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected].