Bad Faith 

"The Reaping" is after easy crops of cash, not souls.

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If the leaden Hilary Swank vehicle "The Reaping" is any indication, the current vogue for God in the movies is entering its decadent, demoralized stage. Lacking just about any reason to be, this movie often seems like a series of re-enactments of its better (or at least more durable) predecessors, like "Rosemary's Baby." Blurring the line between homage and theft, "The Reaping" manages the impossible: It makes "The Omen" look like a masterpiece of spiritual probing and cinematic integrity.

We begin on the campus of Louisiana State University, where Professor Katherine Winter (Swank) regales her class with a PowerPoint presentation about her unmasking of various and sundry paranormal phenomena. But she is called away from Mythbusting 101 to a remote bayou town whose river has turned blood-red at the site of a local boy's mysterious death.

Could this be a recurrence of the plagues visited upon Egypt in Exodus? Most residents of the town attribute this misfortune to an outcast family eking out a living on the riverbanks, and most particularly to its freaky, wide-eyed daughter (AnnaSophia Robb). Only the local science teacher (David Morrissey) hopes, with the good professor's help, to stave off a righteous lynching by finding a rational explanation for the red river.

Within a day of her arrival, Winter is confronted with what seem to be four of the biblical plagues, including frogs and clouds of computer-generated flies. But these are not just matters of scientific interest to her, for it turns out that this scoffer at miracles has a tragic back story. A former priest, Winter had once traveled as a missionary with her family to Africa, where a horrible collision of bad luck and tribal superstition robbed her of her loved ones and her faith. Her quest to show that there are no miracles is her way of getting back at religion itself, which she now regards as a pack of dangerous lies.

Naturally, her atheism begins to waver, as do the shaky Mississippi Delta accents throughout the movie. Her face goes slack when the local police hand her a lab report confirming that the river is full of human blood.

It may occur to you to wonder why this professional debunker puts immediate credence in a piece of paper handed to her by a back-country sheriff whose motives she suspects. Or why her pious assistant, Ben (Idris Elba), is loyal to her in spite of her faith-bashing ways. Or why no one in this all-white town, not even the old-timers, bats an eye at Ben, even though he happens to be young, handsome, black and the constant companion of a white woman.

But it would be a mistake to start asking these questions. This movie asks nothing of you — neither your intelligence, nor your curiosity about the supernatural, nor your sense of psychological or social plausibility — and it would be bad manners to ask anything of it.

The story of a woman who learns that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in her philosophy might seem an indictment of a secular age, but the temptation to treat "The Reaping" as the bearer of a message must be avoided. This movie doesn't have a thing on its mind other than the cash you've left behind at the box office. It's about the reaping of dollars, not souls. And if talk of hell and angels moves tickets, it would indeed be a miracle if Hollywood did not try to get a piece of all that God action.

Apart from the thought of the talent that went to waste here — especially that of the wonderful Stephen Rea, who appears as a priest repeatedly warning Winter of impending doom — what's most moving about the picture is that it concludes with a desperate bid for a sequel.

Although the cast and crew of "The Reaping" must have realized that it has almost nothing to offer, they still seem to hope they might be given a chance to resuscitate this sorry creation one day, when it would have been more seemly to let it lapse into oblivion. That's the only real instance of faith to be found in this lazily prepared hash — faith in low standards. It's dispiriting to realize it may be justified. (R) 96 min. * S

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