Skip to main content

There is a God, and I’m going to meet him.

The Rapture
(1991)

(SPOILERS) Michael Tolkin was Hollywood flavour of the month for a brief spell following the acclaim that greeted his script for The Player, which revolved around Hollywood flavours of the month. It bagged him an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay but his subsequent movie career has been patchy, consisting mostly of script doctoring here and there. This may be partly because his name is associated, rightly or wrongly, with that rarefied field (for Tinsteltown) of thoughtful discourses on morality, religion and metaphysics. There isn’t much call for such musings most of the time; fast food versions are much more digestible, and California is renowned for glib but whacky cults and fringe belief systems. Tolkin’s purest distillations of these themes came in two directorial efforts during the early 1990s. The Rapture was the first of these, and betrays many of the shortcomings of a writer taking tentative steps behind the camera. It’s main problem, however, is that, for all the intellectual posturing involved, the best this interrogation of Christian doctrine can come up with is “God stinks”. Which isn’t exactly groundbreaking.


A more-palatable purveyor of spiritual contemplation, certainly in terms of box office receipts, is Tolkin’s co-writer on Deep Impact (the other 1998 asteroid movie, the one that didn’t go the full Bay), Bruce Joel Rubin. Rubin, rather than tearing down belief systems or staring into the abject abyss, has settled into a pattern of positivity and affirmation; spiritual comfort food in which an afterlife of whatever form is guaranteed (his best known effort, Ghost, offers a decidedly Christian Heaven-Hell dualism, but that’s probably more in the service of studio whims than a representative of his ideas; Rubin’s a Buddhist and meditation instructor, after all). Tolkin second film, The New Age (which I saw years ago and liked, for all its “window shopping religion” shallowness in addressing shallowness) is, as its title suggests, a potted tour of various spiritual bents by a couple who realised their lives are empty. In The Rapture, Mimi Rogers’ Sharon, a swinger by night and a call centre operative by day, is also afflicted by a pervading lack. There’s a theme developing here.


On balance I’d suggest Tolkin’s interests are better served within the context of a mainstream movie, where he has the opportunity to twist traditional material into a more provocative and distinct form. Left to his own devices, he appears to succumb to labouring the point and exposing the limitations of his thinking on a subject. I have to admit, I’ve always found The Player is a little overrated; too pleased with its own cleverness, without really pulling off anything remarkable on any level. Deep Cover, which came out the same year, is on the surface quite familiar but plays out as a much more interesting picture, wherein Laurence Fishburne’s undercover cop becomes entangled with Jeff Goldblum’s charismatic drug dealer. The later Changing Lanes also attempts to grasp at threads of morality, choices, and existential crises, but does so less successfully (most recently Tolkin has worked on Ray Donovan, a series that ought to be right up his street in terms of themes of good and bad and the grey area in between).


The chief problem with The Rapture comes down to the essentials of premise. If you’re going to plunge into the well-thumbed arena of “What kind of god is God that he lets all these terrible things happen?” you need a little more shading and nuance than a depiction of zombified happy-clappies and a succession of fateful incidents to bludgeon home your point. Otherwise, it becomes “Tell me something I don’t know?” The film starts off in a manner that suggests it does have somewhere interesting to go, and as such it feels that all most any tangent Tolkin could have gone off on during its course would have been more interesting than the one he takes. There’s another writer who lent his pen to examinations of faith and belief in a far more cogent and entertaining manner than so-po-faced-he-invites-mirth Tolkin does; William Peter Blatty (now I start thinking about it, there are more enthusiasts in the field than at first glance; Schrader’s another). While Tolkin, with his Judaistic background, is on the outside looking in at Christianity, Blatty, as a Roman Catholic, is subsumed by it. His characters believe, but they are tortured by doubt. Additionally, through operating in the horror genre Blatty discovered surrounding terrain far more suited to the highs and lows of talk and action (or in his case terror).


The Rapture, it isn’t a total failure – there are some individually distinct, interesting ideas and well-conveyed scenes – but it continually comes up short. For a picture this dry, it desperately needs a spark, something to make it distinctive. It has one strong idea but, by the time it gets to it, all good will has been exhausted through flogging a dead martyr. This idea is; let’s suppose the Christian God exists, for all his apparently dreadfulness and indifference to the suffering of those in his creation. Would you, at the last moment, renounce your prior sins/disbelief in Him if it meant safe passage into heaven? I suspect most of us, given such an option. Would opt for the more long-term beneficial arrangement. Sharon has the courage of her lack of convictions, though, and elects to remain in purgatory (at least, if this is hell, it’s a fairly unassuming version) for all eternity.


So disgusted is she with God that she deigns to be shut out in the cold forever (“Why would I thank him for the gift of suffering?”). But Tolkin, already inflicting a torturously dour tone on the picture, fumbles the delivery. Sharon isn’t a blameless suppliant Job figure, dangled by God as a plaything for his old sparring partner in a game of bash-the-believer. And the salient points of Tolkin’s Christianity are nothing if not piecemeal and confused. The true, born again believers have their faith validated by the vision of a pearl that comes to them in a dream. This may be a reference to the parable of the pearl in Matthew, Chapter 13, in which the kingdom of heaven is compared the quest of a for pearls; “Who, when he had found one of great price, went and sold all that he had, and bought it”. So Sharon gives up everything she hitherto knew when she finds Jesus. Or is it, in fact, just a vision of the Moon? Tolkin appears to be suggesting this entire religious experience is a quick fix on one level; Sharon replaces her licentious lifestyle with a similarly all-encompassing one of God and family; “I want my salvation” she demands, as if it is an item that as tangible as comestibles in the supermarket. When it comes to the rub she has not changed deep within herself, merely applied a bandage.


Tolkin deftly deals with the standard tropes of end of the world cults, in particular the stalling for time that must inevitably be summoned when God, or Jesus, or the Apocalypse, doesn’t arrive as prescribed in the heat of the moment (“The end is coming – this year” following a subtitled gap of six years since Sharon found God). Her boss and fellow believer Henry (Dick Anthony Williams) addresses this cooling off period, the initial rush tempered by the realisation that this was “still just shadows of the real thing”. In Tolkin’s hotchpotch medley of Christianity and cults there’s a child prophet issuing pronunciations about the return of the Lord (we are told there are others like him) and “wars and rumours of wars”.


Meanwhile the rapture looks as if will have the appearance of the Church’s gilded version, rather than the brief intimation – the final resurrection – in Thessalonians 4 (“The rapture is coming. It says so in The Bible”). That is, we assume this will be that taking up of a select few, leaving the rest on Earth (which has no specific basis in scripture); the kind of scenario The Leftovers has run with exceeding skill. However, then comes the shaking of the firmament, the blasts of trumpets, and the four horseman (well, one at least). At the climax Foster (Will Patton) appears in purgatory and is given the option to stay or go now, which may indicate the whole of humanity has everything riding on up for up or down immediately. This choice itself is presented in a profoundly facile manner; are we to believe Foster was overcome with actual love, or more realistically he decided “Fuck it, I’ll have some of that”? Either way, it’s a lumpen  take on the Christian faith in the aid of presenting his tepid vision.


Since Tolkin decides to run with a literal rapture, in order to force home his point about a non-benign God, much of the contemplation of earlier scenes falls by the wayside. This includes an incredibly stiff confessional from David Duchovny’s Randy (great name for a swinger; if only Tolkin had such a sense of humour throughout) about how he once killed a man for money. I’m a big fan of Duchovny generally but this is far from his best work, playing up all those who complain about a perceived wooden, disinterested delivery. It gives Tolkin a platform to introduce Philosophy 101 concepts like “If we weren’t taught that killing is bad, would I still feel this bad?” with all vigour of a corduroy jacket leading a student seminar. Speaking of 101, Sharon is shown to be living in an apartment with that numer during early scenes; her own private torture chamber (hell)?


Sharon: But I don’t love him. Not any more. He has too many rules. He broke his promise. He let me kill my little girl, and he still expects me to love him?

The discussion of murder takes it’s most ungainly turn when Sharon heads out into the desert with her daughter Mary (Kimberley Cullum, woeful and ill-advisedly served up great reams of crucial dialogue). There’s so much awry with this passage, it would work as farce if it weren’t so dreary. Sharon and her daughter stand out every day, gazing heavenwards, waiting to be taken to God. Until he doesn’t come. Mary is distraught,; she wants to get up there to Heaven to be reunited with dad (Randy). Which is the understandable disposition of millennial cult feeling the pinch of a deflated balloon. Mary whines and whines and whines, imploring her mother to end it all for both of them so they can to see daddy sooner. The little brat just won’t shut up, so it’s no wonder mommy eventually accedes to her wishes and puts a bullet in her head.


You see, you can go to heaven if you pressure someone into killing you (you’d have thought that would be sin too), but you can’t go if you do it to yourself. Fine, she who smelt it dealt it. But at no point does Sharon raise the small concern with her daughter that if she does what Mary asks she will be committing a mortal sin and won’t stand much chance of getting past those pearly gates. One has to assume Tolkin is conveniently sidestepping this little detaik, as all that is required of Sharon when she is called to account is to say that she loves God. God doesn’t seem to have a beef with her for infanticide.


Tolkin is presumably drawing some parallels to Abraham and Isaac here (you remember, when Abraham had Isaac staring down the barrel of a gun?), but they flounder due to his choice for a literal approach to God. Abraham was straight out told by God to kill his son – that Old Testament God, eh? – we aren’t encouraged to interpret this merely as murderous thoughts knocking about his head, transferring blame to a murderous deity. Sharon has received no such edict. Her child coerces her because she’s so bloody impatient, and then she has the cheek to say it’s God’s fault? Put yourself in God’s shoes; you’d be a bit pissed at someone, particularly if they did the deed only a couple of days prior to the big event (was Frank Darabont inspired by this for the ending of The Mist, I wonder?) Maybe this just goes to underline that we really bring our own torments upon ourselves, and a divine overview has no bearing on anything, but Tolkin has muddied his pond by this point and it’s difficult to pull coherence from his jumble of semi-formed religiosity.


As stodgy as many of the philosophical exchanges are, Tolkin manages to ignite genuine sparks sporadically. He even has a chuckle occasionally. The call centre where Sharon works is a sterile grey half-light, a soul-destroying vacuum, but on being born again Sharon gushes, “Henry, God made me an information operator for a reason”. The swingers’ session in which she becomes transfixed by a tattoo across the back of one of the partners (Carole Davis) has just the right air of occult intrigue; Tolkin gauges the contrasts between Sharon’s carnal lifestyle and the cryptic glimpses of belief at the corner of her existence far more convincingly than when he goes the whole hog. So too, the beckoning photographs of her deceased hubby (a horseman of the apocalypse interrupting a sports broadcast is just daft, though; maybe in an episode of The Young Ones, but Tolkin is just asking for ridicule). James Le Gros cameos as a shirtless drifter who just won’t stop talking (“Chicks don’t usually stop for me”);  his is the kind of one scene character who could have stepped straight out of a Hal Hartley picture. 


The best scene here, and the one suggesting Tolkin could have transposed these weighty themes into a much less dry and much more intriguing piece of work, has Randy firing go an alcoholic employee while espousing his ingratiatingly well-meaning Christianity (if there’s one thing Tolkin gets right, it’s the toe-curling insistence of many with faith to raise their adherence to same at any opportunity, given or not). “I’ll pray for you,” says Randy. “Fuck you!” replies Louis (Douglas Roberts) before returning to the offices with a shotgun and making very messy work of the décor.


This is Rogers’ show, and mostly those who surround her are unable to pick up the slack left by Tolkin’s empty direction and staging. Others, including Patrick Bachau and the usually reliable Patton, make little impact. She carries the picture, far more than it deserves. Rogers is probably best known as the ex-Mrs Tom Cruise, and it was she who tutored her former hubby in the ways of scientology-ness. Rogers has said that her lack of Christian grounding probably made the part easier to play, but one wonders if it might have been useful to have someone with some insights to call Tolkin out on his garbled critique. Mimi would later reteam with Duchovny in The X-Files.


As a director, Tolkin couldn’t be said to be making the most of his low budget. The interiors feel like interiors, and the exteriors feel like a world populated only the by guest actors. This is an issue Cronenberg used to suffer from, although there the effect went to emphasis a claustrophobic, hermetic environment. Cinematographer Bojan Bazelli is unable to redress the balance. Nor is Thomas Newman (who also provided a playful piece for The Player), despite a suitable ominous and brooding score,.  Scenes hang there, with characters talking round and round the subject of belief in corpulent tones. One might suggest the director just wants to let scenes play, an actors’ director, but the material isn’t strong enough to support it. David Mamet’s early work in the chair also shows up his inexperience as a director, but he could rely on his actors and scenarios and dialogue to drive the piece forward. Tolkin’s characters are meandering and repetitive; we keep waiting for insightful commentary but all we receive are the same philosophically unsophisticated arguments.


The Rapture is at least an interesting picture for all that it makes a meal of its topic of conversation. Successfully manifesting talky movies is a skill in itself; the chosen performers and director can only distract so much if the core of the piece fails to withstand inspection. Tolkin is hamstrung by his own serious intent, as the material just does not support the chosen tone. The further he progresses, the rockier the ground becomes and the more unintentionally comic the results. There’s more food for thought in just one monologue from George C Scott in The Exorcist III, on the dichotomy of a God of boundless love who could also create such a cruel world, than in the entirety of The Rapture’s rudimentary revelation.



Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She writes Twilight fan fiction.

Vampire Academy (2014)
My willingness to give writer Daniel Waters some slack on the grounds of early glories sometimes pays off (Sex and Death 101) and sometimes, as with this messy and indistinct Young Adult adaptation, it doesn’t. If Vampire Academy plods along as a less than innovative smart-mouthed Buffy rip-off that might be because, if you added vampires to Heathers, you would probably get something not so far from the world of Joss Whedon. Unfortunately inspiration is a low ebb throughout, not helped any by tepid direction from Daniel’s sometimes-reliable brother Mark and a couple of hopelessly plankish leads who do their best to dampen down any wit that occasionally attempts to surface.

I can only presume there’s a never-ending pile of Young Adult fiction poised for big screen failure, all of it comprising multi-novel storylines just begging for a moment in the Sun. Every time an adaptation crashes and burns (and the odds are that they will) another one rises, hydra-like, hoping…

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

I am so sick of Scotland!

Outlaw/King (2018)
(SPOILERS) Proof that it isn't enough just to want to make a historical epic, you have to have some level of vision for it as well. Say what you like about Mel's Braveheart – and it isn't a very good film – it's got sensibility in spades. He knew what he was setting out to achieve, and the audience duly responded. What does David Mackenzie want from Outlaw/King (it's shown with a forward slash on the titles, so I'm going with it)? Ostensibly, and unsurprisingly, to restore the stature of Robert the Bruce after it was rather tarnished by Braveheart, but he has singularly failed to do so. More than that, it isn’t an "idea", something you can recognise or get behind even if you don’t care about the guy. You’ll never forget Mel's Wallace, for better or worse, but the most singular aspect of Chris Pine's Bruce hasn’t been his rousing speeches or heroic valour. No, it's been his kingly winky.

If this is not a place for a priest, Miles, then this is exactly where the Lord wants me.

Bad Times at the El Royale (2018)
(SPOILERS) Sometimes a movie comes along where you instantly know you’re safe in the hands of a master of the craft, someone who knows exactly the story they want to tell and precisely how to achieve it. All you have to do is sit back and exult in the joyful dexterity on display. Bad Times at the El Royale is such a movie, and Drew Goddard has outdone himself. From the first scene, set ten years prior to the main action, he has constructed a dizzyingly deft piece of work, stuffed with indelible characters portrayed by perfectly chosen performers, delirious twists and game-changing flashbacks, the package sealed by an accompanying frequently diegetic soundtrack, playing in as it does to the essential plot beats of the whole. If there's a better movie this year, it will be a pretty damn good one.

There's something wrong with the sky.

Hold the Dark (2018)
(SPOILERS) Hold the Dark, an adaptation of William Giraldi's 2014 novel, is big on atmosphere, as you'd expect from director Jeremy Saulnier (Blue Ruin, Green Room) and actor-now-director (I Don’t Want to Live in This World Anymore) pal Macon Blair (furnishing the screenplay and appearing in one scene), but contrastingly low on satisfying resolutions. Being wilfully oblique can be a winner if you’re entirely sure what you're trying to achieve, but the effect here is rather that it’s "for the sake of it" than purposeful.

It was one of the most desolate looking places in the world.

They Shall Not Grow Old (2018)
Peter Jackson's They Shall Not Grow Old, broadcast by the BBC on the centenary of Armistice Day, is "sold" on the attraction and curiosity value of restored, colourised and frame rate-enhanced footage. On that level, this World War I documentary, utilising a misquote from Laurence Binyon's poem for its title, is frequently an eye-opener, transforming the stuttering, blurry visuals that have hitherto informed subsequent generations' relationship with the War. However, that's only half the story; the other is the use of archive interviews with veterans to provide a narrative, exerting an effect often more impacting for what isn't said than for what is.

You kind of look like a slutty Ebola virus.

Crazy Rich Asians (2018)
(SPOILERS) The phenomenal success of Crazy Rich Asians – in the US at any rate, thus far – might lead one to think it's some kind of startling original, but the truth is, whatever its core demographic appeal, this adaptation of Kevin Kwan's novel taps into universally accepted romantic comedy DNA and readily recognisable tropes of family and class, regardless of cultural background. It emerges a smoothly professional product, ticking the expected boxes in those areas – the heroine's highs, lows, rejections, proposals, accompanied by whacky scene-stealing best friend – even if the writing is sometimes a little on the clunky side.

He mobilised the English language and sent it into battle.

Darkest Hour (2017)
(SPOILERS) Watching Joe Wright’s return to the rarefied plane of prestige – and heritage to boot – filmmaking following the execrable folly of the panned Pan, I was struck by the difference an engaged director, one who cares about his characters, makes to material. Only last week, Ridley Scott’s serviceable All the Money in the World made for a pointed illustration of strong material in the hands of someone with no such investment, unless they’re androids. Wright’s dedication to a relatable Winston Churchill ensures that, for the first hour-plus, Darkest Hour is a first-rate affair, a piece of myth-making that barely puts a foot wrong. It has that much in common with Wright’s earlier Word War II tale, Atonement. But then, like Atonement, it comes unstuck.

Prepare the Heathen’s Stand! By order of purification!

Apostle (2018)
(SPOILERS) Another week, another undercooked Netflix flick from an undeniably talented director. What’s up with their quality control? Do they have any? Are they so set on attracting an embarrassment of creatives, they give them carte blanche, to hell with whether the results are any good or not? Apostle's an ungainly folk-horror mashup of The Wicker Man (most obviously, but without the remotest trace of that screenplay's finesse) and any cult-centric Brit horror movie you’d care to think of (including Ben Wheatley's, himself an exponent of similar influences-on-sleeve filmmaking with Kill List), taking in tropes from Hammer, torture porn, and pagan lore but revealing nothing much that's different or original beyond them.

It seemed as if I had missed something.

Room 237 (2012)
Stanley Kubrick’s meticulous, obsessive approach towards filmmaking was renowned, so perhaps it should be no surprise to find comparable traits reflected in a section of his worshippers. Legends about the director have taken root (some of them with a factual basis, others bunkum), while the air of secrecy that enshrouded his life and work has duly fostered a range of conspiracy theories. A few of these are aired in Rodney Ascher’s documentary, which indulges five variably coherent advocates of five variably tenuous theories relating to just what The Shining is really all about. Beyond Jack Nicholson turning the crazy up to 11, that is. Ascher has hit on a fascinating subject, one that exposes our capacity to interpret any given information wildly differently according to our disposition. But his execution, which both underlines and undermines the theses of these devotees, leaves something to be desired.

Part of the problem is simply one of production values. The audio tra…