New Cult Canon ends with the end times of Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture

New Cult Canon ends with the end times of Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture

“In one way or another, I have been waiting for the apocalypse all of my life.” —Opening line, Roger Ebert’s review of The Rapture

What if the crazies are right? 

In the 20-plus years since Michael Tolkin’s The Rapture was released, the crazies have been wrong about the apocalypse, which has missed more dates than Guns N’ Roses’ Chinese Democracy and My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless follow-up combined. (And just as those albums eventually came out, the world will end on its own time.) But Tolkin shows interest neither in the possibility of End Times nor in post-apocalyptic fantasies of the serious (The Road, Time Of The Wolf) or escapist (Knowing, 2012) kind. His exceptionally provocative drama, somehow distributed by New Line, not only allows that the world will end, but grants that it will end precisely how a group of born-again Christians say it’s going to end—Gabriel’s trumpet, Four Horsemen, God’s judgment, the works. Some will be saved. Most will be condemned. Tolkin has the gall to ask different questions: Is this God a just God? And what does His apocalypse say about the value and purpose of life on Earth? What’s the point? 

Tolkin doesn’t pose these questions subtly. He poses them explicitly, sometimes gracelessly. Relatively new to filmmaking—he had scripted Gleaming The Cube and wrote the novel The Player, which he’d adapt for Robert Altman the next year—Tolkin offers some of the clinical atmosphere he would apply later to his underrated follow-up, The New Age, but he’s more interested in simply following his heroine’s moral journey from one extreme place to another. And there’s value in that: Movies about spiritual matters can get tacky when they try to find cinematic ways to express the infinite (just look at that girls’ Trapper Keeper folder Peter Jackson made called The Lovely Bones), but Tolkin has more basic concerns in mind, and The Rapture succeeds in part because it’s so blunt about matters of sin, redemption, sacrifice, and celestial justice. It takes a special type of chutzpah for a (semi) major studio movie to essentially tell God to get stuffed. 

Opening on the soul-sucking click-clackery of telephone operators squeezed into cubicles, The Rapture settles on Sharon (Mimi Rogers), who drones through hours of saying, “Business or residence?” and, “Please hold for the number.” At night, Sharon slips on a short black dress and prowls the town with her partner Vic (a wonderfully fork-tongued Patrick Bauchau), looking for attractive couples to bring back to Vic’s apartment for an omnisexual good time. (The dichotomy between office-drone Sharon and sex-fiend Sharon is positively Angel-esque.) But the emptiness of both sides of her life starts to eat away at her, enough to where she doesn’t slam the door on a couple of Bible-thumpers who want to talk salvation. One night, Sharon’s dreams bring a revelation that alters her life immediately and dramatically, and she joins the fundamentalist cause with a fervency common to the recently converted. 

The events that follow strike to the heart of what Tolkin is trying to explore with The Rapture. Years later, Sharon is leading a more meaningful, blessed-out existence with her husband (another converted sinner, played by David Duchovny) and their daughter, awaiting the end times with the certainty that they’ll be among the saved. She weathers one terrible, inexplicable tragedy that nonetheless doesn’t shake her faith, and when Judgment Day finally approaches, she takes her daughter to the desert to await passage into the holy realm. It’s a long wait, exacting a still-greater tragedy, and suddenly the question isn’t whether God has a plan, but whether that plan is worth the cost. 

Films are rarely well-served by planting moral questions in the dialogue itself, but when the questions are so rarely asked, like the ones in The Rapture, they prompt you to sit up and listen. There’s a scene in the sin-committing half of the film where Sharon engages in pillow talk with her future husband, who confesses to once killing a person for money. It plainly bothers him—and her, too—but they both occupy a moral place where no limits apply and the difference between right and wrong is up for debate. “If we weren’t taught killing is bad,” he asks, “would I still feel this bad?” For Sharon (and the stranger in her bed), religion ends those kinds of discussions, throwing up guardrails that may cut off her hedonistic freedom, but offer the security and purpose of following God’s path. There’s an element where she’s grasping at straws, but Tolkin makes it clear that her revelations are not imagined and that the secret circle of whispering born-agains at the office are, in fact, righteous and correct. 

Because it needs to get viewers to a place where they’re questioning God’s will, The Rapture suffers a little from the dramatic rigging necessary to bring Sharon to her remarkable decision. This is why Rogers’ performance is so crucial to making Tolkin’s thesis bear out—or, more precisely, to covering up the fact that the film has a pre-cooked thesis at all. What Rogers brings to the table isn’t just courage—“courage” being critic-speak for “often appearing without clothes”—but a curiosity and intelligence that bridges the film’s two halves. Just because Sharon learns to bottle her inhibitions and submit herself to the Lord, that doesn’t entirely relieve her skepticism or ensure that her slumbering conscience can’t be jostled awake. Rogers plays her as someone who can’t stop asking questions, even when she’s expected to, even when it would be much, much (much, much) easier to stop. 

The apocalypse awaits for everyone, if not yet everyone at once, and The Rapture is the rare American film that wonders whether God’s plan—which makes room for war, poverty, and random destruction—is coherent and comprehensible, and what value, if any, individual lives have in the grand scheme of things. It answers Judgment Day with, “And who are you to judge?”, and in so doing, feels more daring and probing than something like XTC’s novelty hit “Dear God,” which angrily rejects rather than thoughtfully engages. Made four years before the first Left Behind novel was published, The Rapture stands as the skeptic’s answer to end-times scenarios, accepting the reality of it without buying the justification, and sparing a thought to those not saved from the flames. Some of the damned aren’t damnable. 

Addendum: 
It’s fitting (though entirely coincidental) that this piece on The Rapture, a movie about end times, will be my last New Cult Canon entry. After 15 years at The A.V. Club, I’ve resigned my post as Film Editor and will move on to something else after tomorrow. When I began this column back in February 2008 with Donnie Darko, the idea was to pay homage to Danny Peary’s three Cult Movies books by picking up where he left off and exploring “The Classics, The Sleepers, The Weird and The Wonderful” (his words) from 1987 to the present. Peary’s books were foundational reading for a young cinephile like me, well before the Internet existed, and I hope some of you were inspired to play along at home. When I started the column, I certainly never dreamed that the series would find a home in the real world, at places like the Music Box Theatre in Chicago and 92YTribeca in New York, and it’s been a particular pleasure to bring these movies out in front of an audience, the way they were always meant to be seen. (And in many cases, never were during their original release.) 

On a broader note, I’d like to thank all of you for reading and arguing with me all these years, and I hope we can reconnect down the line. Some writers keep away from comment boards, but I think it’s important to put your work in front of the firing squad. You learn a lot you didn’t know, you develop thicker skin, and if you’re going to dish out criticism, you should be okay with taking it, too. Thanks to all my A.V. Club colleagues, past and present, for working so hard and so passionately to build something special, and for the memories and lifelong friendships I take with me. Oh, and before I go: Please turn the motion-smoothing function off on your TV sets. And your friends’ and parents’ sets, too, when they leave the room. Then break into a few homes and change the settings there, too. Consider yourself a pop-culture missionary, doing the Lord’s work.

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