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.
IDRIS ELBA as Ben
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.