Wednesday, November 18, 2009

THE RAPTURE (1991, USA, Tolkin)

Rapture (rap' chur) 1. ecstatic joy or delight. 2. a state of extreme sexual ecstasy. 3. the feeling of being transported to another sphere of existence. 4. the experience of being spirited away to Heaven just before the Apocalypse.

This bizarre shaggy dog story is as sexually and spiritually explicit a film as you're likely ever to see. Mimi Rogers (in what may be the performance of her career) portrays a telephone information operator whose off-hours sexual adventures can no longer mask an agonizing spiritual emptiness. When she overhears the secretive lunch-room whisperings of some drably religious co-workers, this desperate, hungry woman begins to be drawn toward a potentially authentic Christian conversion in the context of a cultish end times sect.

Early in the film Sharon tells a casual sex partner that if she has any limits, she hasn't found them yet. Perhaps that's just as true of director / writer Michael Tolkin, who adapted this uncompromising film from his own novel – he never flinches in following this bizarre, compelling premise to its inevitable, utterly unpredictable conclusion. And the route he follows in getting there is as idiosyncratic as the story he's chosen to tell – just when I thought this thing was a cross between a Shannon Tweed direct-to-video sex flick and a Jack Chick evangelistic tract, I began to wonder if it wasn't going to end up in CLOSE ENCOUNTERS territory, with a bit of Ingmar Bergman and Joel Schumacher thrown in for good measure.

In saying that, I don't mean to be dismissive about the film. Its stylistic excesses come from an abundance of ambition and imagination rather than a poverty of taste or craft. Bear in mind that this movie comes from the same mind as the morally searching CHANGING LANES, the similarly audacious "lets take this idea to its absolute limit" novel that begat Robert Altman's masterful and sophisticated film, THE PLAYER, or the go-for-broke satire of THE NEW AGE.

Given that the film opens with explicit sexual material, it will be no surprise that it doesn't feel obliged to end up in any particularly orthodox theological place. But the films apparent heterodoxies are in tension with the authenticity of this woman's spiritual search, however psychologically troubled she might be. And however church-skit embarassing I found some of the evangelistic dialogue – though I'd suggest that these dichotomies are the film maker's primary strategy,k to constantly confront us with unsettling and dissonant elements that both provoke and confound our preconceptions.

However rambling the film's structure, it ultimately seeks the very core of the Christian faith, asking blunt questions about the only question that matters: the love of God – our love for him, and his for us. I found the film's final assertion unsatisfying due to what I took as a self-congratulatory lack of nuance, patting itself on the back for asking Big Questions while implying only Small Answers. Until it occurred to me that the untenable situation the character finds herself in is almost entirely of her own making. So just what is this Michael Tolkin guy saying, anyway?

I can think of only two other explicitly religious films that are quite this strange, and only one that has anything like its earnestness of purpose. GOD TOLD ME TO is equally quirky, but is finally nothing more than a confused Godsploitation flick. Brian Moore charts equally strange spiritual waters with serious intent in COLD HEAVEN, but that film is seriously marred by grotesquely bad acting. It seems THE RAPTURE stands at the pinnacle of its provocative genre – however small and eccentric that genre may be.

Available at Videomatica


Anonymous said...

I saw this movie the first time in the late 1990's. I remember being jaw-dropped mesmerized by the bizarreness that began about halfway through. Until then, I thought I knew what kind of movie it was. Then, as the story unfolded in the second half, I had to abandon all preconceptions formed during the first half. When it was over (that first time), I remember just sitting there stunned. Speechless.

I re-watched it again last night, and was so disturbed that I had to get on the internet and find someone else who has seen this crazy film. Which led me to this blog.

THE PLAYER is greatly successful at satirizing shallow show biz, and THE NEW AGE is a fine black comedy, but THE RAPTURE is like no other movie ever. What can one compare it to? Nothing. How can a movie be so intensely about religion, and yet ultimately, you really don't know which side of the aisle Michael Tolkin would chose to sit on. Believer? Non-Believer? Belief in what?

The audacity of the storytelling puts Michael Tolkin in a class by himself. When the car alarm goes off at Vasquez Rocks ("the desert") and they scramble up the steep incline... to dare to combine such tragic and comic elements... it makes even the Coen brothers look tame. (Not to mention the utter illogic -- what difference would it make to God, whether you were waiting on the desert floor or atop a rock fifteen feet higher? Like that itty bit of extra elevation would make all the difference, when ascending to Heaven.)

The pathos in her pathetic scramble up those rocks, mistaking a car alarm for God calling... Taking a moment to grab the stuffed pandabear toy, because her daughter wants to take it to Heaven. Oh. My. God.

Yes, everything that happens to her during those last few weeks is of her own making. And yes, the ending is worthy of discussion. What could initially be perceived as a story-telling cop-out develops much more depth when one ponders that concept of Free Will, and that whole hubris thing.

She blamed God for something she did. How can God be about love when he made her kill her baby? she asks. Ah, but God didn't really make her kill her baby, helllooooo...

As I watched it the second time, I came to see this as less being about religion, and more being about mental illness. Imagine all the apocolyptic images of the film's last 10 minutes as being mere fabrications of her disturbed mind. Imagine if that last shot of her in Limbo (Purgatory?) had dissolved to her sitting alone in a prison cell. And you would know that the whole Gabriel's Horn, 4 Horsemen montage was her fantasy. And now she'll spend the rest of her life semi-catatonic in a mental institution.

Just a thought.

Anyhow, I'm glad I found this blog.

Ron Reed said...

Hey, I'm glad you found this blog too! Thanks for taking the time to post such a thorough and thoughtful comment on the film. You're right: there's nothing else like it.

Ron Reed said...

Darn! Something went sideways when I was moderating comments this morning, and I unintentionally deleted a comment from Spencer. I believe it was for this film, saying that the film had scarred him when he watched it years ago. Apologies, Spencer: please re-post, I'd love to have your comments in full.

Alyssa said...

I vaguely remember seeing this movie several years ago. I'm only 18 right now, as I was BORN in 1991 :), but I remember as a younger kid watching this film and being very scarred. As such a young kid I found the whole thing very disturbing and mind-boggling. I think I'll have to re-watch it now that I'm older. Thanks for the comments you guys, you got me interested in watching it again so I can actually have the chance to analyze it now that I'm older.