Bruce LaBruce’s Academy of the Underrated: The Rapture

In his journey through the alternative canon, LaBruce puts his focus on Michael Tolkin's 1991 fusion of female sexual melodrama and Biblical epic.

Despite its increasing topicality, The Rapture (1991), written and directed by Michael Tolkin, has largely been forgotten, but for me it remains one of the best films of the nineties, featuring an indelible performance by Mimi Rogers that rates alongside the finest of the era. Reviews were mixed for the film upon its release, seeming to fall behind strict lines – either rapturous (Roger Ebert loved it) or dismissive (the unadventurous Owen Gleiberman gave it a tepid review). But the film only gets stronger – and more relevant – with age.

It takes a special writer-director to pull off a movie that begins in Looking for Mr. Goodbar territory and ends up in the realm of a classic Hollywood Biblical epic set in The Twilight Zone. The film not only successfully careens through several opposing genres, but it also negotiates a number of unexpected twists and turns with a consistency of tone and message that, in less capable hands, might have rendered it ridiculous. Tolkin, who famously wrote Robert Altman’s evisceration of Hollywood, The Player, as a follow-up to The Rapture, is a Jewish writer who takes on the subject of fundamentalist/Evangelistic New Testament Christianity with the slightly jaundiced eye of an outside observer; only Woody Allen, who nailed upper middle class WASP culture so convincingly in Interiors, could be so bold. But beyond its subtle ironic and camp aspects, Tolkin also very seriously applies this Christian parable to the historical trials and tribulations of Judaism, with particular regard, as we shall see, to the theological quandary presented by the Holocaust. It’s an ambitious film, and a deeply theosophical one, realized perfectly on a modest budget.

The Rapture starts with the somewhat apocalyptic sound of a roomful of telephone operators taking calls in front of computer monitors and searching for information by clicking on keyboards. The film was made before the Internet became mainstream, and when computer technology was still relatively nascent; it’s a testament to Tolkin’s visionary imagination that he prefigures the alienating effect of technology and social media by using data slaves as a metaphor for isolation and emptiness. The camera slowly tracks into Sharon (Mimi Rogers), one of the many workers doing the same repetitive task, saying the same phrases (“Is that a business or residence?”) over and over again. The following scene shows Sharon riding shotgun in a convertible with her fuck buddy, Vic (Patrick Bauchau), glamorously smoking a cigarette while cruising for some sexual action. The pair ends up picking up a straight couple in a bar, one of them named Randy (David Duchovny, sporting a mullet), who will later become central to Sharon’s life.

The foursome has sex in Vic’s furniture store, an ironic simulacrum of sexual relations that emphasizes its commoditization and detachment from “real” emotional or spiritual experience. But, of course, this has to be read somewhat ironically – although Tolkin takes the idea of the search for spiritual enlightenment quite seriously, the film is also a satire of Christian Evangelist moralism, so its “critique” of sexual promiscuity and hedonism has to be taken with a rather large grain of salt. In fact, the sex scenes in the first part of the film, the foursomes and threesomes and the intimations of kink and S&M in which Sharon indulges, are lovingly portrayed, much the way Diane Keaton’s sexuality is joyfully presented in Goodbar. The scene in which Sharon and Randy talk while Vic and Randy’s partner fuck in the background is reminiscent of Tuesday Weld’s foursome in Goodbar – seductively louche and carnal.

While alternating between scenes of Sharon’s increasing alienation both at work and in her leisure-time pursuit of extreme sexual pleasure, The Rapture begins to introduce the idea of an alternative path as Sharon overhears co-workers talk about the Pearl and the Boy, secret signifiers of spiritual enlightenment. She invites two door-to-door Evangelical Christian proselytizers into her apartment to have a theological debate, and to find out more about this esoteric society of true believers, presented almost like the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers. (The film, at times, almost verges on science-fiction territory.) While engaged in another foursome, Sharon asks the girl whom Vic is fucking, while he is fucking her, about the meaning of the pearl tattoo on her back. It’s a brilliant scene, depicting Sharon as completely bored and indifferent to the man who is fucking her up the ass as she questions the girl to seek spiritual guidance. Back at work, she starts to challenge her co-workers about their Christian faith. “There are five billion people on the planet. There are I-don’t-know-how-many religions. Why does the God from some little town on the Mediterranean have to be the God for everyone? Isn’t that a little arrogant?” They tell her that no one from the other religions is saved, and that she doesn’t understand because she doesn’t have faith.

As Sharon slowly gets sucked into the Born Again system of belief, she cuts Vic and Randy – and sex – out of her life. After her last sexual encounter with Randy, she gets up in the middle of the night to change the bed sheets because she feels unclean and she wants a new beginning. Seeking salvation, she scrubs her skin in a piping hot shower, and flosses her teeth obsessively (another great and subtle moment of satire – flossing her sins away) while having a theological debate with Randy. “I’m tired of the pain in my life. I’m tired of feeling empty all the time. There has to be something more.” Randy tells her there is no God, and that she’s merely trying to assert control over a random and disastrous world. After stealing a gun from a hapless hustler (a great little turn by James LeGros), Sharon finds herself in a hotel with the weapon under her chin while listening to the Velvet Underground and Nico’s “I’ll Be Your Mirror” (Nico as the ultimate avatar of alienation), but she can’t pull the trigger. She puts the gun away in the bed table drawer, and pulls out the Bible instead. As she reads it, she finally has a vision of the Pearl, and becomes ecstatic.

She starts proselytizing to the people she talks to on the phone as an operator, asking them if they’ve met Jesus. when this comes to the attention of her boss, who is a secret Christian Evangelist, he takes her to a meeting with the Boy – a black kid of five or six who channels prophecies to the congregation. (The “Magical Negro” here is balanced later by the character of Mary, an equally magical white girl.) Sharon visits Randy to tell him of her enlightenment, and to entreat him to join her. “It’s just a drug,” he says, still resistant, “Instead of heroin, you’re doing God.” Sharon tells him that she knows she can help him make the leap of faith.

The second act leaps – in a film of many leaps – to six years later. Sharon and Randy have a young daughter now, and he is a successful businessman, his mullet cut off in favor of a respectable haircut. The family prays together in their home, their faces shining with light. Mary, their beatific daughter (a remarkable performance by child actor Kimberly Cullum), is inquisitive about Christianity, asking her mother at the pool why you can’t see heaven. (Children – Mary and the Boy – are the spiritual avatars in the film, having the true insight and wisdom into such ethereal matters.) As the family prays again, while on a close-up of Mary, we hear the loud report of a gun; cut to Randy’s workplace, where an office killer is on the loose. “I’m tired of kissing your Christian asshole,” says the alienated worker, who starts to shoot his colleagues one by one. It’s an ingenious sequence, the gunshot sound over Mary’s face foreshadowing the heart-wrenching moral crisis of the film to come. “I have a daughter,” Randy pleads to the office killer, who responds, without mercy, by shooting him dead. As in Psycho before it, one of the main characters is killed suddenly, prematurely, out of the blue, throwing the film into an entirely unexpected direction for the first time, but not the last.

After the funeral for her husband, Sharon has a vision of him when he appears to her in the background of some photographs being developed in the window of a photo-processing store. A complex trope, it configures the spirit of her dead husband as another simulacrum, a ghost in the machine, a film-roll-within-the-film. Her vision calls her to the desert, and at the next meeting of her Christian believers, the Boy tells her that God has singled her out for a special purpose. Sharon quits her job, gives up her house and heads for the desert with her daughter to await God’s call to bring her to heaven – essentially to await their deaths.

Being the deeply subtle satirist that he is, Tolkin presents Sharon’s Biblical trip to the desert – her burning bush moment – as a banal family picnic gone wrong. The desert is more along the lines of a National Park, where Sharon and Mary share a campsite with an enthusiastic rock-climber. A handsome cop (the great Will Patton) starts to take interest in the strange homeless pair (“Are you with God?” Sharon asks him, to which he replies, “No, I’m with the Sheriff.”), checking in on them and bringing them supplies. In one scene, the rock-climber’s car alarm goes off, which the mother and daughter mistake for Gabriel’s trumpet calling them to heaven, sending them scrambling to the top of the big rock they’ve been camping beside. Tired of waiting and suffering, they plead with God to take them. In a bold, long single take, a telephoto shot taken from below, Mary begs her mother to allow them to commit suicide together in order to get to God quicker: “C’mon, Mom, let’s die!” Sharon is tempted, but replies, “Let’s give God one more chance.”

The Rapture contains an element of camp, but like all good camp, it’s played completely straight. After much suffering and starvation, and more premonitory visions and dreams of the Pearl and of the glory of heaven, Sharon takes her daughter to a burger drive-thru, which they speed away from without paying. The food, however, because of their alienation from the material world, tastes strange to them (more so, presumably, than such food usually tastes). This episode prompts them to return to the top of the rock, where Sharon tells Mary that she will meet Jesus and Baby Jesus together in heaven. She shoots her daughter in the back of the head (recalling the previous gunshot sound over her face), but when she shoves the gun under her own chin, once again, she is unable to pull the trigger, shooting five bullets into the air instead as she screams from the depths of her soul.

It’s an astonishing reconfiguration, and sex-role reversal, of the Biblical tale of Abraham, except in this instance God does not provide a ram for Sharon to sacrifice in place of her own child. As the cop chases her speeding away from her burial of her daughter, instead of his motorcycle she hears the galloping hooves of the First Horseman of the Apocalypse, a genuinely chilling moment. Mary’s auditory “hallucinations” become visual as shots of the actual Horsemen start to appear, beginning with close-ups of the horse’s hooves, as if the film has suddenly transformed – another leap of faith for the viewer – into a classic Hollywood Biblical epic. When the cop finally stops, she confesses to her crime, telling him that she couldn’t kill herself because according to her faith, people who commit suicide cannot enter heaven. Mimi Rogers’ performance throughout this sequence, and until the end, is enormously moving and intense as her character begins to understand the ultimate moral bind that her God has placed her in, compelling her to murder her own daughter. When the cop asks her where her God is now, she replies, “I think basically He says you have to love Him no matter what. But I don’t love him anymore. He has too many rules.” It’s a gut-wrenching scene, beautifully played by both actors.

Sharon ends up in jail, where her cellmate turns out to be the woman from her earlier foursome, with the pearl tattoo on her back. “You have to trust completely in God,” she tells Sharon. “He’ll forgive all your sins.” “Who forgives God?” replies Sharon. After she has a vision of her daughter in heaven accompanied by two elder women (the film also has a remarkably strong feminist angle, often emphasizing relationships between women having theological debates outside the presence of men), she finally hears Gabriel’s trumpet, and the first Horseman appears in his totality on the jailhouse TV. Armageddon, is, in fact, really happening. This is perhaps the biggest leap of faith of all expected from the viewer: the Rapture is not a hallucination or a vision, but something that actually happens in reality within the fiction of the film. Like The Mist, a later science-fiction film with similar themes of Abraham-like sacrifice and purgatory, we have entered another, misty parallel dimension. As Sharon speeds away on the back of the cop’s motorcycle, they both see the Apocalyptic Horsemen for real. They dismount the bike and are surrounded by a mist, and Mary (the daughter significantly named after the Mother of Christ) appears before them. She asks the cop if he loves God for giving him the gift of life, and when he says yes, he vanishes, going straight to heaven. When Mary asks her mother the same question, she can’t respond in kind. “Why should I thank Him for the gift of so much suffering, so much pain on the Earth that He has created?”

This, finally, is the theological question that confronted so many people of the Jewish faith after the Holocaust, and one that Tolkin is clearly posing with his film. Their faith was not only shaken, but often shattered when they came to the realization that the decimation of so many Jews and so much of Jewish culture, and of so many of the scholars and Rabbis who shepherded it, and in such a horrific way, challenged their traditional belief that God’s intervention ultimately balances the world by rewarding good and punishing evil. God may be able to forgive Sharon, but Sharon cannot forgive God. She ends up in a Twilight Zone-like, misty soundstage purgatory. “Do you know how long you have to stay here?” Mary asks. “Yes,” replies Sharon. “How long?” her daughter asks. “Forever,” replies Sharon. It’s one of the bleakest endings of any film, but one that somehow reinforces Sharon’s strength, and her conviction not to allow herself to be so easily absolved from the ultimate sin she has committed.

Bruce LaBruce is a filmmaker, writer, photographer and artist based in Toronto, Canada. Recently there have been retrospectives of his films at the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto and at MoMA in New York City. His latest feature, The Misandrists, will be released in 2017.