"The Reaping" | An absurdly overwrought supernatural thriller

In the darkness of a movie theater, no one can see your eyes roll. But I imagine plenty of optic gymnastics going on during Stephen Hopkins' "The Reaping," an absurdly overwrought supernatural thriller that leaves one wondering about the grim job prospects for multiple Oscar winners. What, I shudder to think, were the projects Hilary Swank turned down in favor of this one?

The talented Swank, since her breakout role in "Boys Don't Cry," has been all over the place: sometimes splendid ("Million Dollar Baby," "Insomnia"), sometimes miscast ("The Black Dahlia," "The Affair of the Necklace"), sometimes mystifying (perkily burrowing into the center of the earth in "The Core"). Here, she plays Katherine Winter, a former missionary now turned academic debunker of miracles. Summoned to a small Louisiana town seemingly visited by the first of the 10 biblical plagues, she wades enthusiastically into a river of blood, determined to attribute it to scientific phenomena.

But wait — things are due to get worse in once-picturesque Haven. Frogs rain from the sky, cattle dramatically faint in their pastures (an unexpectedly funny moment), children become infested with lice and Katherine has several encounters with the supposed demon child (AnnaSophia Robb, mostly wordless and looking thoroughly disgusted, perhaps at her agent) who's caused all this mayhem. There are creepy visions of a guy with a sword, some stigmata, more plagues (the boils, especially, will put you off your dinner) and finally a scene in which Our Heroine Goes Downstairs Alone Into A Dark Basement, Recklessly Disregarding Her Personal Safety, so at least you know the movie's almost over.

With the possible exception of a very impressive flock of locusts, there's nothing in this movie worth paying to see, unless you get a kick out of watching good actors slumming. Swank gasps, throws her hair around, widens her eyes and heaves her bosom, but it's all in the service of a distasteful story that uses violent images of children for thrills, and leaves us with a shameless and entirely laughable bid for a sequel. (Can you say "The Omen"?) She deserves better; so do we.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Movie review 1 stars

Showtimes and trailer

"The Reaping," with Hilary Swank, David Morrissey, Idris Elba, AnnaSophia Robb, Stephen Rea. Directed by Stephen Hopkins, from a screenplay by Carey W. Hayes and Chad Hayes.

96 minutes. Rated R for violence, disturbing images and some sexuality. Several theaters.