(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.