Some movies are better if they don't meet you halfway
By Edward Copeland
Movies about ideas aren't easy to pull off — especially when they tackle religious and philosophical ones. That's what made the release 20 years ago today of writer-director Michael Tolkin's The Rapture so unusual, unexpected and challenging. Led by an outstanding but overlooked performance by Mimi Rogers, it's difficult to believe that this film came from the same man who wrote the novel and would go on to co-write the adaptation of the wicked Hollywood satire The Player with Robert Altman as well as write and direct the similarly biting comedy The New Age. The Rapture preceded both films and no matter if you were religious or not, The Rapture made you think at the same time its story kept you transfixed.
Nothing within The Rapture gets played for mockery nor is it one of those bland fundamentalist propaganda pictures that pop up in the Bible Belt with amazing frequency. (When I first saw the poster touting Left Behind: The Movie starring Kirk Cameron, I thought it told the story of his acting career following Growing Pains.) The Rapture takes place in modern times, so it's neither an old-style biblical epic nor something like Mel Gibson's multimillion-dollar snuff film, which focused so much on Jesus' torture and crucifixion, it omitted pretty much anything that would explain why Christ was an important figure in the first place. Because the nature of The Rapture proves so thought-provoking and surprising, any thorough look at the film almost merits a spoiler warning for those who haven't seen it because you can't discuss it without going into detail and if you've read or heard about its plot specifics prior to seeing it, you still might be able to appreciate the movie's excellence but inevitably, your viewing experience will be diminished. (I'm probably overstating the case since the original trailer can be seen at IMDb and elsewhere online and pretty much gives the entire film away.) However, I truly believe that unless you have seen the film, stop reading now. This piece isn't going to vanish from this site and will be easy to find through my indexes so rent it, watch it, then come back and read this and discuss. Trust me — if you watch The Rapture, you'll want to talk about it afterward.
Tolkin begins The Rapture with a fantastic opening shot, wonderfully timed to move with Thomas Newman's moody and haunting score. As the credits run, the camera moves like a rat in a maze through the grayest of rooms (despite hanging lights overhead) filled with cubicles occupied by operators. As the shot zigs and zags methodically past the workers in the depressing, windowless space, it finally settles on Sharon (Rogers), wearing a tiny headset like the others in the room. "Please hold for the number. Operator 134. What city please? Is that a business or residence?" she asks the caller. Yes, Sharon provides information, but that doesn't mean she knows the answer. In the middle of a person's inquiry, her shift ends. She gets up and another woman takes her chair and picks up where she left off, the switch as imperceptible to the caller as a reel change when handled by the best of projectionists. It isn't necessarily a dehumanizing way to make a living, but it doesn't exactly breed satisfaction with one's accomplishments or provide a job worth bragging about to others. It pays the bills and that's about all you can say for it.
Nights definitely add more flavor to Sharon's life and when we first experience her after-work activities, some degree of satisfaction — at least it appears to us that way on the surface the first time we tag along as voyeurs. Sharon and her lover Vic (Patrick Bauchau) hit the streets of Los Angeles in his convertible and cruise bars, searching for other couples open to a night of sexual experimentation with strangers. At a bar, Vic and Sharon think they've found what they seek in a young couple named Randy and Diana (David Duchovny, Stéphanie Menuez). Randy seems to enjoy verbal games, asking Vic and Sharon, "What if things get out of control?" Sharon, showing no trace of the by-the-script information operator, drags on her cigarette and replies with her own question, "What's control got to do with it?" Vic joins the wordplay, telling Sharon that he thinks Randy "wants to know if you have any limits." Though the two couples sit barely a foot-and-a-half apart, Sharon passes on her answer through Vic, "Tell him I haven't found them yet." As the story unfolds, Sharon's limits (and we aren't talking sexual) will be tested and her search for them powers The Rapture's unusual and unexpected course. At this point, we don't know where the movie is heading, but it will start dropping clues quickly after this brief perversion diversion. As for the swingers' night out, Vic tells Randy and Diana that he has a department store nearby and the foursome depart to that location to embark on their night of sexual frolic.
At the store, it doesn't take long for the couples to switch partners and for simple dancing to turn into something more, though the sex isn't filmed for erotic effect. It's not that it's comical or grotesque, but within the confines of the setting of a closed and empty department store, the coupling seems superficial and anonymous, which perhaps is the point of swinging. Where is the ecstasy? Where is the pleasure? When at one point, Randy, Sharon and Diana all explore one another on a plastic-wrapped mattress, Diana asks if Vic should join them, but Sharon assures her that it's OK: "Vic likes to watch." As a viewer, you are playing the voyeur as Vic is then, but it doesn't arouse or entrance, it just puzzles. What enjoyment would be gained from watching them since their sex seems as mechanical as Sharon's script as an information operator? You don't see the attraction because the sex looks so hollow and meaningless, which is precisely what Tolkin is aiming for in relation to what's to come. It's subliminal filmmaking without using split-second inserts. Of course, Tolkin faces a big challenge ahead. Orson Welles famously said, “In my opinion, there are two things that can absolutely not be carried to the screen: the realistic presentation of the sexual act and praying to God.” Tolkin wasn't trying to be real on the former — we'll have to see how the latter goes. The next day at work, during a break, she overhears three of her co-workers Wayne, Maggie and Conrad (Sam Vlahos, Darwyn Carson and Rustam Branaman) discussing signs they've seen that point to coming of the endtimes and speaking mysteriously about "the boy." The talk intrigues Sharon, but when the three realize she's eavesdropping, they stop their conversation. Though the department store ménage à quatre presumably was intended to be of the one-night variety and, to an outside observer, it certainly didn't appear as if a deeper connection between any of the participants had been forged. Randy and Sharon continue to see each other, though without Vic or Paula joining in. However, even in this more conventional lovemaking, it appears as if only Randy feels something. Sharon doesn't look either in love or lust — her expressions seem vacant, her eyes often closed as if she isn't even involved. It doesn't escape Randy's notice, who tries to engage in post-coital conversation which doesn't seem to engage Sharon any more than the sex. Randy even confesses that he once killed a man for $1,000 and the act still bothers him. Sharon's lack of much reaction to even that gets Randy to suggest that she might be depressed and he asks if she's ever considered seeing a therapist.
On her day off, Sharon sits alone in her apartment, sipping on a beer and absent-mindedly ripping the subscription card inserts out of a magazine and sending them sailing across the room — it doesn't appear that she's bothering to take the time to read anything in the magazine and tearing those annoyances out as she comes upon them: Their removal seems to be the main mission of her day until a knock comes on her door, a knock she at first ignores, since she is busy with such an important project. However, at the second knock, she makes her way to her peephole to check out who is on the other side. Two young men in suits (Scott Burkholder, Vince Grant) peer back. At first, she opens the door just a crack — this is L.A. after all and she is a woman alone. "You understand that these are the last days," one of the men says. "It can't keep going on like this," the other adds. Sharon opens the door and lets the men in, skeptical though she may be. She sits on the edge of her chair, still nursing her beer as they talk. "God is coming back. Prophecies are being fulfilled," one tells her. Sharon asks them who the boy is she heard her co-workers talking about. "Some people say the boy is a prophet in the old tradition," one replies. "What do you think?" Sharon asks. "I say trust in God," he answers as he hands her a miniature Bible. His friend tells her that God will speak to open-minded people. After they leave, Sharon swaps her beer for the Bible and thumbs its pages.
Sharon's conversion to piety from her pagan ways hardly happens overnight. She and Vic go carousing again (despite her seeing Randy regularly as a solo act) and hook up with an executive (Patrick Dollaghan) and a young woman named Angie (Carole Davis). While the new pairs break off into separate coupling, it seems as if only three of them are participating in the sexcapades. The executive may be having his way with Sharon, but she couldn't be less interested once Angie disrobes and mounts Vic, revealing a back covered by tattoos. Part of the skin mural in particular fascinates Sharon: It shows a hand holding a pearl. Even though the executive continues to pump away energetically, Sharon can't stop herself from interrupting both sexual sessions to quiz Angie about the tattoo. Angie tries to put her off at first — and Vic and the exec would welcome her silence so everyone could get off — but Angie relents and asks Sharon, "Don't you know?" Sharon shakes her head. Angie explains that it depicts God's hand giving all Christians a pearl because the Rapture draws near. Many Christians have dreamed this image, Angie tells her.
When Sharon takes her break the next time at work, she sees the trio of Wayne, Maggie and Conrad once again congregating together, only this time it's by the vending machines instead of one of the tables. With what Angie told her about the pearl, Sharon believes she has an in to garner more information from this group. She tells them that she had a dream about the pearl. It catches their attention, but Wayne asks her to describe it. When Sharon tries to fake it using Angie's back as a guide, Wayne sees through her right away and accuses her of lying about having had the dream. "It's a message from God. If you really want it all you have to do is pray," he tells her. Sharon, so needy and eager to learn if somehow spirituality could fill this vacuum in her life, gets testy. "If everybody is getting this dream, how come it isn't in the news?" she asks them. "Those who need to know, know," Conrad says. "And those that don't believe, won't get the dream," Maggie adds. The feeling of exclusion she gets from the three, as opposed to the two men who came to her door, sets Sharon off on a righteous tirade. "There are five billion people on this planet. There's I don't know how many religions. Why does the God of some little country on the Mediterranean have to be the God for everyone? Isn't that a little arrogant? I mean, really. The Buddhists get along OK without Jesus Christ. The Hindus get along OK without Jesus Christ. The Muslims seem to be getting along without Jesus Christ," Sharon lashes out at them. Hearing this speech, which rings just as true to me today as it did 20 years ago, I do wonder if The Rapture were being made today, would the last line about the Muslims seeming to get along OK still be in there or would the small fraction of radicals who proclaim to practice that faith and have rained down much death and destruction on peoples of all faiths have soured it to the point that Tolkin wouldn't include it anymore? After Sharon finishes her speech, Wayne replies, "But none of them are saved." For the most part, with the exception of these three characters, the Christians portrayed in The Rapture are not thumbing their nose at non-Christians. They worry for those who don't believe what they do, but they don't ostracize them and though politics never becomes part of the story in The Rapture, I imagine Wayne as the type of Christian who believes that Jesus would have something to say about the capital gains tax. Politics, particularly Republican politics, has really warped that religion. I always think of the line by Max von Sydow's artist character Frederick in Woody Allen's Hannah and Her Sisters: "If Jesus came back and saw what's going on in his name, he'd never stop throwing up." My running gag has been for a long time that Christianity wouldn't be that bad if it weren't for all the Christians, though you might be able to substitute just about any organized religion that gets out of control and loses sight of its basic tenets. This is one of the many reasons I find The Rapture such a compelling film. I'm not a religious man — even when I was a kid and went to Sunday School and got all the way up to taking First Communion, I found it all too irrational and illogical. That's only intensified over time. Yet, The Rapture deals with religion seriously and doesn't try to discredit it or paint its followers as zealots or insane, yet the film moves me and speaks to me even though my own theological thoughts haven't changed.
While The Rapture takes Sharon's journey quite seriously, that isn't to say there aren't characters who mock her or think she's lost it as she changes. The first to experience her newfound quest for meaning and God is Randy, stunned when she suddenly kicks him out of bed in the middle of the night because she's become obsessed with making herself and the bed "clean." Sharon starts ripping the sheets off the bed and replacing them with clean linens. "Randy, you have to go." She then jumps into the shower and strenuously scrubs herself, declaring, "I want to be clean." Randy, growing concerned for her well-being, asks what she's talking about. She tells him she needs salvation, she needs God. "There is no God," Randy says. Sharon sits on the corner of the bed, flossing her teeth as if she's trying to cut down a tree. "When we do something wrong, we feel bad and that's because there's a little bit of God inside all of us telling us to change our ways before it's too late," Sharon tells Randy. "Isn't that right?" Randy can't believe what's going on and does his best to talk sense to her. "No, that's not right. It's been conditioned by society. All we all are animals whose brains have become too big and too complicated for the purpose of satisfying our animal needs which are food and sex," Randy argues. Sharon gets up and paces. She's wound up like she's on something, though she's sober. "There's a spiritual need just as real as hunger, just as real as the need to love," she insists. "Sharon, don't you understand what's going on? The world's a disaster. We have no power to make it better. 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," he says. "I feel sorry for you, Randy. I really do love you, but I want you to leave," Sharon repeats. "There has to be something more. I'm tired of the pain. I'm tired of feeling empty inside." On the DVD commentary track with Tolkin, Rogers, Duchovny and Bauchau, Duchovny and the other actors talk about what a pleasure it was to be in something that not only was well written, but contains long scenes more similar to theater. Instead of short bursts of dialogue, it allows actors to dig deep into a scene and their character and it shows. You see it in the best movies and the best pay cable dramas that don't have to break for commercials. It's not just a pleasure for the performer, it's a pleasure for viewers as well, captivating us without the constant cutting and microscenes timed either for advertisements or short attention spans. The true mocking comes when she encounters Vic again, who hasn't seen Sharon in awhile and notices the change in her immediately, though religious conversion isn't one of the conclusions he leaps to as the cause. "You've changed. You've got this goofy smile," he tells her. He guesses that she's met someone, which Sharon confirms and then he laughs when he guesses she's fallen in love, but Sharon remains vague. At this point, Vic has sprawled across Sharon's bed crying tears of laughter as he says, "You fell for some rich homosexual." His laughter stops when Sharon confesses that her mystery man is God. Vic gets serious, asking how much money she has given them, assuming that a cult must be behind this and she needs deprogramming. "You can't understand, but I know what's that like," Sharon tells Vic. "Until it happens to you and until you accept God into your heart, it's like a fairy tale. It's like some joke you don't get." Vic gently kisses her on the forehead and asks her to call him "when this is all over." By the time she saw Vic, Sharon had started to build confidence, but it had been a slow climb. The journey included picking up a motormouth hitchhiker named Tommy (a nice cameo by James LeGros), taking him to a motel, showering fully clothed and, after stealing his gun from a bag, ordering him out so she can down his bottle of liquor and attempt suicide only to wimp out and be drawn to the Bible in the motel night stand. The night after she kicked Randy out, she lay in her bed in the dark, her eyes squeezed tightly shut, trying to pray. "Please God, hear me," she begged. "I'm lost."
Her confidence grows to the point that she starts proselytizing to the faceless voices she encounters at work seeking telephone numbers which, as you'd expect becomes a problem that leads to a trip to the office of her supervisor Henry (Dick Anthony Williams). This scene proves to be another example of Tolkin surprising the audience's expectations. Henry, at first, takes Sharon to task because her average time on each call has increased far beyond what it should be, sometimes as long as seven minutes. Sharon, as does the viewer, expects that she's going to be chewed out for preaching to people calling in for information. "God made me an information operator for a reason. I'm in a position to spread His word to hundreds of people every day personally one to one," Sharon tells her boss. To her surprise, Henry responds by saying that he had the same experience at first when he saw the pearl. "Only the humble hear the voice of God," he says, explaining than when the experience is new to you, you lose old friends and "It's like you've moved to a whole new country." He also shares how it felt as if the end was imminent, but that they don't really know that timetable. Sharon asks how much longer it could be and he answers that it could be five to 10 years. Henry is ready to send her back to her station just advising her to take it easy on the preaching when she stops him by asking, "Who is The Boy?" From this point on, Tolkin really challenges the moviegoer to follow his vision as her question to Henry segues to a prayer meeting where a young African-American boy (DeVaughn Nixon) whispers his messages and Henry delivers them to the gathering, which includes Sharon. Henry passes on The Boy's message a phrase at a time, "God is coming back…There are wars and rumors of wars… And a curse devours the earth…And those who live here are held guilty." Sharon again asks, "When?" The Boy whispers to Henry once more. "Probably a few years, like five or 10," Henry interprets.
Now fully committed to God, Sharon can't quite imagine a possible decade of solitude so she makes the desperation move of trying to win Randy back. When she arrives at his workshop, he isn't that happy to see her, given the way things ended. He doesn't try to mask the sarcasm in his voice as he asks her how her apartment is coming and if she managed to get it clean. When she says she did, he congratulates her on finding her salvation. "I found God," she tells him. "Oh yeah. Is he gonna move in or will he keep his own place or are you gonna do that commuting thing? Watch out. That's very tough on a relationship," Randy jokes. Sharon tries to stay serious, telling Randy that she wants him to feel as she does. "It's just a drug. Instead of doing heroin, you are doing God," Randy tells Sharon who just repeats how much she cares for him and wants to help him. Something within Randy breaks and he asks, "You'd stay with me even if I didn't pray?" Sharon embraces him and words on the screen tell us it's SIX YEARS LATER. The Boy (now played by Christian Belnavis) speaks for himself now, telling the gathering, "So far, we're still in the realm of signs and wonders but the Rapture is coming. It says so in the Bible. Our bodies will be transformed into spirits. And then we'll be taken up in the clouds to meet God. The end is coming soon." As the camera slowly pans the front pew, we see Sharon holding the hand of a little girl (Kimberly Cullum) sitting next to her and on the other side of the girl holding her other hand is a cleaned-up Randy, now apparently a believer.
It's unclear where they live now, but Randy has an office manager job and Sharon stays at home with their daughter Mary at their condo. She tries to pass on their views to Paula (Terri Hanauer), a skeptical friend who doesn't buy the whole notion of a Rapture. "So do you mean if you're a Christian and you were ironing your shirts and the Rapture began, you go up to heaven right in the middle of doing your laundry? Well does God give you time to turn off the iron or do your shirts burn?" the friend asks Sharon as they lounge in the pool. Sharon's answer is that she wears permanent press. At Randy's work, life is not so carefree as he has to fire Louis, an alcoholic employee (Douglas Roberts) who says he's "tired of kissing your Christian a-hole." In perhaps the film's most chilling moment, the family holds hands in a prayer circle in their condo when suddenly one of the loudest gunshots I've ever heard erupts on the sound reel and Randy is back at his office desk. Louis marches down the building's halls, killing every person he sees. Randy goes out and leans over one of the victim's in the hallway, unaware that Louis has went inside an office, but he comes back out. "Louis," Randy says. "No speeches, preacher," Louis insists. Randy puts his hand up in a stop motion, pleading, "I have a little girl." Louis coldly says, "So what?" and fires, killing Randy instantly.
You would think that if an event were to shake Sharon's faith, this would be it, but it only seems to make her more committed. She has to answer Mary's questions about whether Daddy is in Heaven and when will they see him again and Sharon has to explain they will when the Rapture comes, though the little girl also understands that a death will do it. Paula talks frankly with her after the funeral. "You see, now's one of those times when I wish I was a believer," Paula tells Sharon who asks why. "Because I would have a rock to stand on, because I could tell myself that everything was for the better because God has a plan," Paula answers. "But it is, because He does," Sharon insists. Paula looks at her dumbfounded. "I tell myself that if we didn't tell our children about God, they wouldn't ask. It is a story we tell ourselves so everything makes sense," Paula says. Sharon's life gets stranger. She stumbles upon a group of photos that to her seems to indicate that Randy is calling her and Mary to the desert. She seeks the counsel of The Boy, who warns to be careful that it's not Satan, but Sharon doesn't think so. She's unsure of what to do. "Don't ask God to meet you halfway," The Boy tells her.
Tolkin asks the same of his audience at this point in the film: You must have faith in where he's heading or give up right then. There isn't going to be compromises to please the audience. He is going to stay true to his vision. That's why it's baffling to me if you peruse some reviews of the film that completely misinterpret it as a right-wing Christian propaganda film. It's understandable to have criticisms of the movie, some of which are very valid, but this is a movie that takes religion seriously but also has its main character make the decision to murder her child so she can get to Heaven early, then has the balls to depict the Rapture as described in the Bible as actually taking place and as a final coda has its main character decide to spend eternity in purgatory rather than declare love for a God that would demand allegiance that caused her to kill her child. As Sharon asks, "Who forgives God?" Show me a fundamentalist who would make a movie where the climax involves the rejection of God.
Some of the effects when the Rapture take place aren't the greatest in the world, but that makes them all the more harrowing as we watch the bars of jail cells start to fall away and see the galloping hoofbeats of the Four Horsemen. As I've said from the beginning, Mimi Rogers makes this film with her performance, especially in the late stages in the desert scenes, many played opposite Will Patton as Foster, a member of the local sheriff's department. "Life is some kind of punishment, isn't it?" Sharon asks him. "You have to love Him. Not me, not anymore. He's got too many rules." It is heartbreaking as she stands on the edge of the river to wash away her sins and her daughter begs her to say she loves God or she'll never see her again and as much as it hurts, Sharon sticks to her anger at God. "Why should I thank him for the gift of so much suffering on earth?" Tolkin also gives her a great final line when Mary asks Sharon how long she's going to stay there in the nether regions. "Forever." It's disgusting that in 1991 Rogers was denied an Oscar nomination for best actress but Bette Midler received one for For the Boys. Then again, Oscar isn't known for embracing films that make you think.