Michael Tolkin's directorial debut explores (dis)belief within the end of the world.
rt requires some measure of faith, a pair of concepts with which Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture (1991) has a complicated, conflicted relationship. As wayward Angeleno phone operator Sharon (Mimi Rogers) finds, follows, and loses sight of God, the shapeshifting film around her undergoes a series of crises regarding its own set of beliefs. Once portentous dreams compel Sharon to embrace Christ as her savior, the Bible transforms from a collection of narrative metaphors into a factual account of history and a predictor of the Armageddon to come. We’re not sure what to make of her slumbering visions, however. Are they really messages from beyond or the random firing of neurons in an increasingly unstable brain? Tolkin likewise stokes a fascinating, uncommon tension between modes of reality, which tightens with each genre shift. A louche erotic drama mutates into a psychological thriller, then finally ascends into a celestial parable. With that last drastic pivot, one type of movie turns into the other, its credence and ambivalence all the more affecting for their grounding up to that point. As Sharon says with the serene knowingness of those heeding the call, “Until you accept God into your heart, it’s like a fairytale, it’s like some joke you don’t get.” Even cinema itself can be converted.
When the film joins Sharon, she’s filling the spiritual vacuum of her numbing wage-slave days with material hedonism by night, cruising for game couples with her partner in seduction Vic (Patrick Bauchau, honing the arch, amused purr on fullest display in TV’s Carnivàle). During one such ménage a quatre, she’s startled by a stranger’s elaborate full-back tattoo of a large pearly orb she’s seen in her sleep, the same image she hears described by some born-again weirdos at her office as a sign of the impending Judgment. The woman shrugs that she just got it on a drunken night out, and before a viewer can note that the design would take more than a single session, Sharon beats them to the punch. “You got that done in one night?” she asks, as if trying to pause the scene. Everyone else would rather continue on the way to Fucksville, but Sharon harps on this, blowing the mood with her insistent need for explanation. An art film would let this mystery be pondered, whereas Tolkin allows Sharon the same skepticism as any real person. She wants to make it make sense.
This recurring sphere flips some switch inside Sharon, who abruptly one-eighties into devoutness and renounces her ways of profane sensation. Even as she dives headlong into the vague orthodoxy of her unspecified cultish sect, Tolkin finds openings for the text to lodge its own tacit misgivings. Reinforcing the impression of Christianity as an unsettlingly omnipresent cabal, Sharon’s supervisor reveals himself as a fellow follower, and there’s more than a trace of vanity in his voice as he declares that “only the humble hear the voice of God.” She attends small services that look like AA meetings, where one shot catches a slight pause in her expression as she turns from hugging a man on one side to a woman on her other. Just how lateral is the move from her carnal communions to this form? The odd stroke of dry humor also makes light of an absurdity soon to worsen into no laughing matter, as in Sharon’s confident announcement that “God made me an information operator for a reason.”
In keeping with the atypicality of this slippery fish, the action confounds traditional three-act structure by skipping ahead six years around the forty-five-minute mark. Sharon convinces her himbo slam piece Randy (a pre-fame David Duchovny) to settle down, and post-time-jump, they’ve sired a daughter, Mary (Kimberly Cullum). Something’s off about the services they attend, led by a Black child presumed to have a direct link to the will of the Almighty. But Tolkin pairs this dubiousness toward the holy with a bloodcurdling vision of a life lived without God; in a passage of morbid razor-wire comedy, Randy dismisses an alcoholic employee who refuses to go to “A-holes Anonymous,” and the man’s response escalates from hurling the epithet of “banana-head” to a workplace killing spree. As Randy stands before his brandished shotgun, he begs for mercy with the information that he has a little girl at home, to which the shooter replies “So what?” with a nihilistic hollow indifference. People need some fashion of moral Polaris to follow, and even if Sharon’s may be built on questionable foundations, Tolkin reserves some respect for the conviction of belief itself.
Sharon faces the ultimate test as her grief-spiral sends her into the desert to await the end of days with Mary in tow, against the wishes of friends and loved ones increasingly concerned about her sanity. “God is real,” she tells them. “God is not make-believe.” These later scenes carefully manage the distinction between the two, remaining rooted in plausibility even as Sharon and Mary traverse an environment of minimalist abstraction. Their existential wander shifts the film’s atmosphere into a hazier register, and yet they’re still beholden to realistic factors like hunger. Penniless, they drive off without paying for fast food, which Mary refuses to eat on the basis of being stolen. The realization that her daughter has outpaced her own zealotry nudges Sharon toward the inconceivable choice to execute Mary so that she might reunite with the father she so misses, a dark inflection on the Biblical myth of Isaac and Abraham in which God never pulls the gotcha. Tolkin frames this unspeakable act with tasteful if chilly restraint, not as a sacred offering but as the culmination of one woman’s worsening psychosis.
Following the “how would this really play out?” approach, Sharon winds up in jail for her crimes, with her loyalty to God shattered and her religion rejected as “a story we tell ourselves so everything makes sense.” So she’s taken aback when the capital-R Rapture actually happens, a decisive upending of the film’s heretofore earthbound laws of narrative physics. There’s an oddly material element to the events of this great reckoning, e.g. the beating of a white horse’s hooves shown through the pixels of a small mounted TV, but nevertheless it catapults Sharon into a reoriented purgatorial landscape of uncertain surrealism. Having acquiesced to the existence of God, she still can’t bring herself to buy into his benevolence, and she’s accordingly barred from the firmament of heaven. Tolkin shares in her ambivalence—his break into the extra-natural tempered by the reasonably human reaction he assigns Sharon. Though his film grazes the ecstatic, he can’t let go and fully drift into the ether.
Star Mimi Rogers claimed that her background in Scientology helped her to understand Sharon, a fellow believer nonetheless repudiating the divinity of Christ. (As a film about a turbulent relationship with a remote, inscrutable presence, The Rapture may have granted Rogers some closure in the wake of her marriage to Tom Cruise, whom she divorced one year earlier after hipping him to Xenu’s grace.) The insular shibboleths of Scientology provide a particularly colorful example of the intimate compacts one assents to in order to get closer to something higher than themselves. Art is no different, operating in tacit agreements of withheld disbelief, terms that Tolkin renegotiates in tandem with Sharon’s metaphysical haggle against God. Hers is a dimension whereas his is a tone, but in the end, they both find their way to Limbo.
The Rapture is available to stream on the Criterion Channel. It is also available to rent or purchase on Amazon Prime, YouTube, Apple TV, Google Play, and Vudu.
Charles Bramesco is a freelance film and TV critic living in Brooklyn. A former staff writer for Rolling Stone, he's been featured in the New York Times, New York Magazine, the Guardian, and many other fine publications. His second book, Colors of Film: The Story of Cinema in 50 Palettes, is on shelves now.