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DEEP FOCUS: Michael Tolkin's THE RAPTURE (1991)

Video
by Steven Santos
October 25, 2011 2:00 AM
4 Comments
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[Editor's note: This video essay explores the themes of The Rapture in detail, and requires knowledge of its plot points from beginning to end. Both the video and the following transcript of its narration contain spoilers. To read Matt Zoller Seitz' 1991 Dallas Observer review of The Rapture, click here.]

We each have our own image of God, whether it was formed from reading the Bible or just having the notion that he is a nonexistent, mythical figure. Michael Tolkin's 1991 film The Rapture challenges all those perceptions and forces us to consider who God really is. It's the story of a truly spiritual -- and, more importantly, intellectual -- awakening.

Sharon, played by Mimi Rogers, is someone whose life is adrift. She lives an existence numb to human emotions, trying to get whatever cheap thrills she can find. Only when Sharon begins to notice how others are at peace with themselves does she begin to find her purpose. Sharon completely embraces the beliefs of Christianity, finding a way out of her past life.

Now, The Rapture does not let her off the hook. It questions Sharon's steps towards God. It articulates the responses you would expect from an atheist. It suggests that she is being brainwashed, or perhaps replacing one addiction with another. Rogers' powerful performance makes it difficult to tell whether Sharon is incapable of thinking for herself, or if she really believes deeply in every platitude she offers.

Sharon marries and has a daughter with one of her early sex partners (David Duchovny), saving him from his own aimless existence. This is where the film starts to challenge the beliefs of Christians and non-Christians alike. After Sharon loses her husband in a mass shooting, both she and her daughter are not deterred. They are both fully convinced that the rapture is soon approaching. Sharon believes she receives a message from God to take her daughter to a remote park until the rapture happens.

At this point, some of us skeptics may question whether Sharon shaping the child's religious beliefs constitutes some form of child abuse. This begins a lengthy section of the film where they both hold steadfast to their beliefs that the rapture will eventually come. In fact, a police officer (Will Patton), a non-believer at that, shows more concern for their well-being than they do. And yet the film does not even make it that easy for the non-believers. Running out of food and options -- and, in Sharon's case, her faith -- she decides to do the unspeakable to her daughter to end her suffering, as well as demonstrate her devotion to God even more. God becomes less a mythical figure and more of a human one. Sharon slowly comes to the realization she may have wasted her life appeasing someone who is only toying with her feelings. This would be easier to dismiss if we discovered that God did not exist. But this is where Tolkin's film becomes braver, and challenges us with the notion that God is indeed real.

The thesis of The Rapture is that God is a narcissist, giving us life for the sole purpose of demanding unconditional love in return, no matter how much damage his demands have inflicted on human lives. The film posits the theory that God is undeserving of our love even if he does exist, that he is in no way any less fallible to pettiness and power trips than the human beings he created. Like many humans, God lives by a set of rules and laws that he applies arbitrarily at his own moral convenience. Tolkin illustrates this by showing the non-believing cop immediately being accepted into heaven by declaring his love for God in a last ditch effort to be saved. He's merely saying what God wants to hear to save his own skin.

Sharon, on the other hand, I consider to be one of the bravest characters in film. Even when confronted with the truth of God's existence, Sharon's resistance shows her to be more spiritually and intellectually awakened than she has ever been in her entire life. And it's that resistance -- not only to a belief system, but to an all-powerful being -- that makes me consider The Rapture a truly inspiring film.

Steven Santos is a freelance TV editor/filmmaker based in New York. His work can be found at StevenEdits.com. He writes about films at his blog The Fine Cut. You can also follow him on Twitter.

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4 Comments

  • Craig Simpson | October 27, 2011 1:36 AMReply

    I don't like movies that punish sexuality either, but "The Rapture" isn't one of them. It's usually sexual *pleasure* that gets punished, and there's nothing pleasurable about this character's lifestyle. One could take issue with that too, I suppose, but as Steven's piece points out, it's essential to her trajectory. So much happens between where Sharon starts and where she ends that I don't think Tolkin is making a direct cause-and-effect between sex and punishment. Sharon can still be saved; she just chooses not to be.

  • Steven Santos | October 26, 2011 11:26 AMReply

    Thanks, Ed!

    I held off reading your piece until mine was published. But I want to link to it here, as I feel it's a terrific piece on a film that should be getting more attention.

    http://eddieonfilm.blogspot.com/2010/10/forever.html

    As you can tell, "The Rapture" is a very personal film to me and what it has to say has only become more relevant to me with each passing year.

  • MWK | October 26, 2011 5:53 AMReply

    I don't how you got that much meaning out of this film. I saw it 15 years ago simply because I had started to watch the X Files and wanted to see Duchovny act in something else and this was in the Video store. About the time in the film where Sharon decides to take the child and go to the beach, what you called "film slows down", became torturous to watch. I did not find Sharon's intellectual/spiritual journey fascinating, meaningful or brave. I did and do believe that her relationship with god was a substitute/replacement for her earlier chase for pleasure and sex. I came away feeling that this was simply a rehash plot of how one must suffer and pay for an aimless, sex laden existence and did not break into any new or bold ground.

    I do agree that it was Mimi Rogers at her best as an actress.

  • Edward Copeland | October 26, 2011 3:18 AMReply

    Great job Steven. I wrote a piece not too long ago on the 20th anniversary of its release. I hope you got a chance to see it. Maybe we can spark a Rapture revival.

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