The Reaping (2007)

Ben more or less embodies The Reaping's pretended argument between Christian belief and skepticism.

The Reaping

Director: Stephen Hopkins
Cast: Hilary Swank, David Morrissey, Idris Elba, AnnaSophia Robb
MPAA rating: R
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
First date: 2007
UK Release Date: 2007-04-20 (General release)
US Release Date: 2007-04-05 (General release)

Note: Minor spoilers ahead.

Early in The Reaping, Ben (Idris Elba) reveals his backstory. As the camera pauses briefly on the rudimentary cross tattooed on his neck, he describes himself as a "churchgoing man," once nearly dead from "two semiautomatics at 10 feet." He turns his body to show the bullet-hole scars on his back, he remembers, "I was still hooked to the IV when they rolled me into court."

It's a dramatic, vaguely Tupac-evoking image (and Elba delivers the speech with a mesmerizing mix of remorse and resilience), but it doesn't quite explain how his experiences, on the street or in prison, have brought him to his current position, assisting in the miracle-debunking exploits of Katherine Winter (Hilary Swank). Ben more or less embodies the movie's pretended argument between Christian belief and skepticism. His faith means he's the one to pronounce "We are witnessing biblical events" even as he is also dedicated to his employer, a former missionary and current university professor (who teaches her students her own research, with a class lecture focused on a scientific and bad-corporate-greed explanation for what seems a miraculous disease in Concepción, Chile). Compassionate, intelligent, and charismatic, Ben is also the only black man in the small Louisiana town where he and Katherine have been called to "explain" a river of blood.

While it's not hard to guess where this status will lead him, Ben is not actually the only black character. The others -- mostly voiceless -- show up in Katherine's own flashbacks, the ones that show why she left the church. These figures are tall and bare-torsoed, natives of Sudan, harshly forbidding in bleach-bypassed shots of babies dying and flies buzzing. Katherine recalls that she and the family -- along with her mentor, Father Costigan (Stephen Rea) -- "showed up with a crate of bibles and clean t-shirts and good intentions," then faced accusations from the locals, who blamed her for the overwhelming famine and drought. The result is tragedy for Katherine, incarnated by a large witch-doctory looking fellow, complete with white face paint and guttural vocals.


HILARY SWANK stars as Katherine

While this backstory appears to be more historically specific than Ben's generic gangster past, in fact it's mongering the same retro fear, the black man as scary monster for the southern white woman: one is redeemed, the other enduring. While these clichés are depressing enough, Ben's fate looks extra-sealed when he hears Katherine having a fit in her bedroom one night during their adventure, and comforts her with a warm embrace and respectful kiss on the forehead, suggesting an intimacy that the movie can't seem to accept as unscary.

Or at least, the other male protagonist can't accept it. Doug (David Morrissey), who teaches grade school science and math in Haven, site of the plaguey phenomena, is plainly interested in Katherine as soon as she arrives (and if only she'd seen Basic Instinct 2, she would have know to beware right off). Doug leads her and Ben into the river of blood, where they deal with stinky dead fish (which, the sheriff says so colorfully, "bubble up like farts in a bathtub") and a rain of dead frogs. At the same time, they're apprised of the locals' theory of who's responsible, namely, a cute little girl named Loren (AnnaSophia Robb). Her older brother showed up dead in the river, her house is full of "ancient" symbols, and her Suhthuhn backwoodsy mom as much as asks Katherine to kill her "baby girl." Katherine, having lost her own young daughter, is righteously horrified by the proposition. But for all her citified smarts, she's apparently no match for Haven's demonic doings.

These include bloody basement walls, oozing boils, head lice, mad cows, and of course, lack of cell phone signals (she and Ben talk a lot on walkie talkies, as they are, per plot machinations, separated repeatedly). While Ben pretty much sticks to collecting samples and running analyses on his fancy laptop, Katherine is distracted by power outages and Doug, from whom she accepts an apparently untasty home brew. So much for her own faith in science and self-reliance.

ANNASOPHIA ROBB as Loren McConnell

Katherine's efforts to make sense of the 10 plagues that make their way into The Reaping (which is for the most part, beautifully shot by DP Peter Levy, thick with color and atmosphere) are hardly helped by her growing friendship with Doug. And to its credit, the film does repeatedly offer up Ben's worried reactions in contrast to Katherine's absorption of town lore and dismissal of gossip. When the cigar-chomping mayor (John McConnell) suggests that, "Some people just don't want to go to heaven," he's looking directly at Ben, whose reverse shot revulsion is clear enough. When Ben spots a "religious" mural that depicts a lynching, Katherine misses this detail, but again his face registers the utter alienation he's feeling in Haven.

His feeling is linked to repeated compositions that highlight the fishbelly white townsfolk, as well as such seeming institutional iconography, as well as to Haven's own backstory (that's backstory number three if you're counting). Doug informs Katherine that the town has been rebuilt on "higher ground" following "three hurricanes," evoking post-Katrina-and-Rita devastations, a feeble gesture toward site specificity enhanced by Doug's affection for blues records and the use of Nina Simone's version of "Take Me to the River" during an exceptionally disquieting rape scene.

The plagues bring more chaos to Haven, though they do come in order and are framed to highlight Loren's inscrutable face, big blue eyes wide as locusts, darkness, and fire-from-the-sky reign down on her seeming opponents, including Katherine and a posse of fearful men with guns. The more Katherine tries to figure out the signs (part of her pondering enacted during a phone call to Father Costigan, who suffers dire consequences too, even though he never comes near Haven), the more she's removed from her best friend and loyal colleague Ben. That he's the sensible sign reader from jump -- understanding the biblical sourcing while maintaining the sort of skepticism that sustains faith -- only makes the folks around him look sillier.


In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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