TOERIFC: The Rapture (1991)

Director/Screenwriter: Michael Tolkin

 

By Marilyn Ferdinand

The 1980s and 90s were an interesting time, a time when the pendulum swung away from the rebellion and hedonism of the 1960s and 70s. In many countries, and especially in an already religiously oriented United States, God and traditional religion made a big comeback in the larger culture. On television, religiously oriented shows, previously confined to Sunday-morning children’s programming and preachy talking-heads discussions like “30 Good Minutes,” were developed for prime time. Dramas like “Highway to Heaven,” “Touched by an Angel,” and “Seventh Heaven” became big and enduring hits. Yet, while these shows were unabashed in their faith in God and angels, they followed the television formula of wrapping conflict up in a tidy bow by the end of the hour, leaving a warm afterglow of harmony and goodness without really engaging religious dogma and belief.

The big screen was slower to get on the religious bandwagon, and when it did, the films that resulted (for example, Dogma and Michael) engaged in feeble mocking of sanitized religion without really challenging it, or exploited scripture for titillation, as with Mel Gibson’s graphic The Passion of the Christ. Eventually, a subgenre of religious films that follow the television formula was established, with The Blind Side reaching the pinnacle of recognition for these efforts.

To my mind, the only film to come out of this period that truly, literally wrestles with scripture itself—not morality, not social problems, not biblical stories—is Michael Tolkin’s dramatic and thought-provoking The Rapture. Combining the apocalyptic predictions from The Revelation of John with a brand of evangelical Christianity, Tolkin explores the journey of a woman who literally fills her emptiness with belief in and love of God and Jesus Christ in the final few years before the end of the world.

Sharon (Mimi Rogers) is a directory-assistance operator who lives in Los Angeles and works in a windowless room of cubicles fielding hundreds of calls for phone numbers with a rote rapidity that make us feel as numb as Sharon looks. Sharon spices up her life after hours cruising with her male friend Vic (Patrick Bauchau) for couples to have sex with. They end up in a downscale bar, where they pick up Randy (David Duchovny) and Paula (Terri Hanauer). Tolkin lets us in on the preliminaries to sex, as Paula dances topless, and Randy, Paula, and Sharon eventually tumble into bed as Vic watches.

At work, Sharon becomes curious when she hears three coworkers talking about “the boy” in the lunchroom. One night, she and Vic meet a pair of married swingers. When the woman unzips her dress, she reveals an elaborate tattoo crowned with a pearl that fascinates Sharon so much that she ignores the husband grinding away at her and asks the woman, Angie (Carole Davis), about it. Angie says, “Don’t you know?” and then says the pearl is a sign that the Rapture is coming, and Christians everywhere are dreaming about it.

Sharon has started to see Randy regularly, though she’s dissatisfied with mere sex and wants to discuss her deeper problems of pain and emptiness. One night, she dreams of the pearl and overnight realizes a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. In her uplifted zeal, she tries to convert the people who call her for phone numbers at work. When she starts proselytizing to Randy he retorts angily, “You hate your job; you hate your life; but you want to feel special. Instead of letting me do that, you’re rushing off to something that’s not even there.” Yet, Sharon meets people who believe in the coming apocalypse, including her boss (Dick Anthony Williams), who takes her to meet the boy (DeVaughn Nixon), a prophet who interprets God’s signs.

Six years pass. Randy and Sharon have married, have had a daughter they named Mary (Kimberly Cullum), and have devoted themselves to God. The boy is a teen now (Christian Benavis) and says the Rapture will be upon them within the year. Randy fires an incompetent employee who later comes back and shoots him and several other employees dead. Sharon hardly seems to grieve, believing that Randy is with God and that she and Mary will see him again very soon when the apocalypse comes. Yet, she sees photos of Randy beckoning her to come meet him in the desert. Certain that she and Mary have been called early, she drives them out to Vasquez Rocks County Park where they pray daily to ascend.

Only they aren’t taken. After more than two weeks, they run out of food. Mary asks Sharon why they can’t just take matters into their own hands and die. Mary, pleading how much she wants to see her daddy, how much she loves God, and how she doesn’t want to wait, eventually persuades Sharon to shoot her. Sharon, crying, fires the fatal shot, but hesitates to kill herself because suicides don’t get into Heaven. She is arrested for murder by the cop (Will Patton) who has been keeping an eye on her and Mary in the park and thrown in a holding cell. Then the first sounding of Gabriel’s horn rings out, announcing Judgment Day, the day Sharon has been waiting and praying for. And despite this, despite the evidence of her own eyes that God and Heaven exist, Sharon chooses to deny God and remain in the darkness. Forever.

The Rapture is a remarkable film that avoids the mundane, the extraneous. It’s not important how Randy and Sharon decide to keep seeing each other after their initial hook-up. Randy’s conversion isn’t important either. This isn’t a story about a couple or even a corrupt world. It is a story about faith—why people seek it, how they find it, and how they lose it.

Sharon’s desperately empty life is communicated economically. Her office environment is characterless and grey, her home spare and provisional, and her relationship with Vic, about whom we neither know nor need to know much, loose and convenient. The stepping stones to her conversion are in plain view, but she can’t pretend she has seen the light until she actually has. Mimi Rogers’ entire demeanor changes the morning after she dreams of the pearl, moving from an affectless shadow to a woman glowing with happiness and self-possession. Her conversation with Vic about falling in love with Jesus is coy, in the language the pair understood before Sharon’s conversion. It’s a clever scene played with conviction that sets up Sharon’s future actions.

Rogers’ sincere central performance makes the questions Sharon asks worth considering, even for an atheist like me, because they are asked without irony from a place of deep yearning. Why do we have to suffer the pain of the world? Why does salvation have to come through Jesus Christ and not any of the other world religions? Why does God demand that we love Him? Tolkin doesn’t answer the questions he poses with reason, but rather by showing that the prophesies of John were true. The apocalypse does come as it was foretold, therefore Christianity is the only true religion. Tolkin’s depiction of the darkness enveloping the world is eerie. Close-up shots of hooves and their hollow clopping stir a real terror before we share with Sharon the dread sight of Death perched upon its white horse, its scythe at the ready. When Sharon makes her fateful decision to refuse God, then, we really feel the gravity of that decision whether or not we are Christian believers. Tolkin’s Rapture is a persuasive cinematic tour de force.

But what of Sharon’s decision? All she has to say is that she loves God and she will never be parted from her beloved daughter and husband again. Is God’s decision to let her kill her daughter really so grievous considering that He overrules His own law against murder to give her a chance to enter Heaven? Was it even God who put her in the desert in the first place? The boy prophet said that Sharon’s visions of her husband in the desert might have been the work of the Devil. Who was Sharon to decide that it wasn’t?

The Rapture dignifies free will even as it ruefully illustrates the disasters of pride. Killing Mary ruptures something in Sharon that had gotten shaky as she waited in vain for God to call them to Him. Is faith that fragile, or is it asking too much for a mother to abandon concern for her child? Humans live in the world, not in eternity, and a loving mother does not want to see her child go hungry, does not want to see her child die before her, and certainly does not want to be the instrument of that death. When faced with what seems like the petulance and immaturity of a god who demands to be loved, Sharon can only protest His cruelty and His pride through refusal.

Although John is a New Testament book, the God of the Revelation is the God of the Torah, who shares a good deal in common with the Greek and Roman gods. That is, the God of Israel is vain, demanding, cruel, capricious, and not as loving of His creations as they are of Him. It has been said that a person who marries for money pays for it every day of married life. Had Sharon accepted the riches of God without feeling love, she would have paid for all eternity. Her choice, to accept the happiness she had before the desert as enough, was, in fact, the right one.

Of God and Sharon, Sharon is by far the better parent. And if our goodness is known by how we treat the least among us, Sharon is the one who belongs in Heaven, not God.

  • Kimberly Lindbergs spoke:
    22nd/03/2010 to 8:30 pm

    No, Marilyn! My rather broad comment was referring to your previous response to me that I read totally wrong. I thought you were being snarky with me when you said “Thank you, Kimberly, for your illuminating comments. Clearly I’m unaware of what Christianity is all about, as I am about Judaism, having grown up largely secularly.” I didn’t think you were snarky before that. at all.

    Please excuse the massive confusion on my part! I had a rough day dealing with VERY snarky jerks in the real world as well as online so I stupidly assumed the worst.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/03/2010 to 8:59 pm

    Thanks for your apology, which I happily accept. There’s a lot of weirdness on the internet but I have always tried to shield this blog from it by conducting things in a civilized spirit of inquiry and enjoyment. And I will continue to do so.

  • Kimberly Lindbergs spoke:
    22nd/03/2010 to 9:04 pm

    On a side note…

    I did want to say that I noticed your comment on Facebook about me earlier and the Film Club where you mentioned that I had “assumed the worst” but that wasn’t the case at all at that point. I actually thought the conversation was going pretty well about The Rapture so that really confused me. But after reading The Facebook discussion I stupidly DID start to assume the worst and figured you must be pissed at me for something. Obviously I didn’t make that clear and I should have commented on Facebook before commenting here. Apologies again, Marilyn!

    Maybe we should just hit the delete button and start again from comment #48? Or maybe I just need to stay the hell out of Film Club. I need more time to formulate my answers and responses. This “off the cuff” stuff obviously gets me in trouble. I’m not good at multitasking and today I’m trying to do 101 things and failing at most of them.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/03/2010 to 9:10 pm

    Well, since TOERIFC seems to be sunsetting, it’s kind of a moot point. Nobody has enough time to comment coherently, so you’re in good company. Let’s just call this a wrap.

  • Ryan Kelly spoke:
    22nd/03/2010 to 9:36 pm

    Great piece Marilyn, you do the film’s many complexities justice. I wonder who, on the whole, this film would be more disturbing to – people with deep rooted theological beliefs, or people like you and me, who are non-believers. Either way it paints the portrait of an unforgiving world largely devoid of meaning (and one where that meaning can be violently ripped away from you – both with respect to her relationship with religion, and with her husband, and in fact the film seems to draw comparisons between the two).

    I’m gonna have to fall on the side of those defending Rogers – I really do think her performance is remarkable. I really love the way her character doesn’t gradually change, and instead her performance completely shifts the moment she discovers religion. She sinks deeper and deeper down the rabbit hole but her character pretty much completely changes after the movie catches up with her as a wife and mother.

    That final image is one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen in a movie. It so beautifully and hauntingly evokes the concept of sheer, endless nothingness. I’ll never forget it.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    22nd/03/2010 to 9:41 pm

    I do think the entire Rapture sequence was disturbing, especially the Four Horsemen. On the whole, though, the film did not shake me up; it just intrigues me no end. What great questions it asks. Yes, Mimi Rogers was called on to do a lot with this part and she acquitted herself admirably.

  • Rod spoke:
    22nd/03/2010 to 10:45 pm

    Having not seen this film, but having a deep interest in the Horror genre, I’d just note that this kind of film can easily fall into the generic category – in fact it’s listed in Phil Hardy’s canonical “Encyclopedia of the Horror Film” and praised there for its “pointed contrast to the Bible-thumping of The Omen or The Seventh Sign“. It’s a serious mistake to attempt to intellectually belittle the genre by arguing anything that asks questions beyond merely Manichaeistic assumptions is therefore not Horror. The Horror genre has roots in folk-mythology and religious parable, and therefore a movie trying to evoke the traditional imagery of the Apocalypse would be taking the genre back to some of its philosophical and psychological roots, so to speak. And yes, 2001 has many elements of a Horror movie – rampaging monster, journey towards terrifying enigma, spaceship-as-old-dark-house, fight for survival; except painted in a technocratic sheen and realised as a finally more transcendent vision.

  • Yann Heckmann spoke:
    23rd/03/2010 to 5:13 am

    Not wanting to fan the flames of a dispute that seems to have been resolved amicably, I nevertheless can’t help but agree with one of Marilyn’s statements, namely that “The Exorcist” does not really engage seriously with dogma and merely treats it as a device to get the horror plot rolling. It’s a grand guignol / gothic novel treatment of Catholicism, and I love the film for going down that route with relish, but I cannot take it seriously as a treatment of religion, since there is no wider context to it whatsoever. Compare it with a film like “Requiem” (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0454931/) and you see what I mean.

  • Marilyn spoke:
    23rd/03/2010 to 9:04 am

    I certainly can’t disagree with Rod, particularly given his cogent review of Wicker Man, a film that is not terribly unlike The Rapture. The split for me lies in how well-established Christianity is; the film’s engagement with its dogma, therefore, has an overt social application than that of the more screaming variety of horror.

    And Yann, I saw the superlative Requiem, which certainly does engage the spiritual aspects of possession in a reflective and human way, just the opposite of The Exorcist.

  • Doug Bonner spoke:
    4th/04/2010 to 4:48 pm

    I’m very impressed, Marilyn. This movie was so difficult for me when I saw it, asking so many prreviously-unasked questions (at least to someone who grew up in a secular environment), that I didn’t dare approach this film. You have shined a lot of light on the dark underpinnings of this film. I thank you for that.

    Doug

  • Marilyn spoke:
    5th/04/2010 to 8:40 am

    My pleasure, Doug. This film is meaty and worth pondering in unraveling the human impulse to worship and faith.

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