Though religion tries to account for the essential questions of the universe, the number of American studio films that have seriously and critically reflected on faith in the past two decades can be counted on half a hand. None have gone to the extremes of Michael Tolkin's audacious 1991 debut The Rapture, which announces the Second Coming with Gabriel's trumpet and four galloping horsemen, but has the temerity to question God's justice to the last. Presaging the Left Behind phenomenon, Tolkin entertained the divine apocalypse without necessarily embracing it, which seems all the more startling today, after Mel Gibson's The Passion Of The Christ turned movie-going into religious ritual. It's one thing for a movie to doubt God's existenceafter all, people often accuse Hollywood of godlessnessbut it's another for Tolkin's heroine to stand on the brink of eternal salvation and consider turning in the other direction.
In a thoughtful, unguarded performance, Mimi Rogers plays a dead-eyed telephone operator who spends her evenings prowling the bar scene with her lover Patrick Bauchau, picking up other couples for orgiastic encounters. Consumed by spiritual emptiness, Rogers becomes intrigued when she overhears a break-room discussion among religious cultists who are excitedly preparing for Judgment Day. In a "eureka" moment, she awakes in the middle of the night with the urge to clean up her life and devote herself to the Lord, and she convinces fellow swinger David Duchovny to take the plunge along with her. Six years later, Rogers and Duchovny are living a good Christian life with a beautiful young daughter, anxiously awaiting Christ's return, which has been prophesied to happen soon. But when Rogers heads out to the desert for the big moment, events conspire to throw her faith into sudden doubt.
It would be enough for The Rapture to view Rogers as foolhardy and desperate in her sudden conversion, not unlike the trendy Californians grappling for meaning in Tolkin's 1994 satire The New Age. Yet The Rapture goes much further than that, asking, "What if everything those blessed-out, door-to-door Bible thumpers claimed was true?" What if the end really is nigh, and those who don't repent and pledge their souls to the Lord are subject to His wrath? Tolkin takes that as a given, yet his conclusion in the outrageously daring final minutes rings with shocking defiance. The loose, surprisingly funny DVD commentary track with Tolkin, Rogers, and Duchovny isolates some of The Rapture's more provocative ideas, yet the film never produced much of a blip on the cultural radar. But just by virtue of raising these central theological issues, it's a rare enough specimen to grow into the conversation piece it has always deserved to be.