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MATT ZOLLER SEITZ: Michael Tolkin's THE RAPTURE is a bloody pearl

by Matthew Seitz
October 25, 2011 1:59 AM
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By Matt Zoller Seitz
Press Play contributor

[Editor's note: This is a reprint of a review that originally ran in in the Nov. 14, 1991 issue of Dallas Observer, a period that predates the newspaper's web archives. It appears online here for the first time as a supplement to Press Play contributor Steven Santos' video essay on The Rapture, which you can watch here.]

It shouldn't surprise anybody that The Rapture is bankrolled by New Line Cinema, the folks who gave us the Nightmare on Elm Street series with its sharp-fingered antihero, Freddy Krueger. This unnerving film by writer-director Michael Tolkin, about a fallen woman who gives herself over to a fundamentalist cult, is a horror movie that wraps itself in the ominous robes of such supernatural epics as Rosemary's Baby and The Exorcist. Its hard to tell if its a cautionary piece about how cults fill up hollow lives with mindless obedience and insanity (it has what may be the ultimate unhappy ending) or if it's an incredibly crafty Jesus-gonna-getcha recruiting film. In any case, it works on the viewer with an almost subconscious power. Seeing it may make even the staunchest nonbelievers want to go to church.

Our guide through this story is Sharon (Mimi Rogers), a telephone information operator who escapes the overpowering dullness of her life through group sex with strangers. Her cruising partner is a slick Brit named Vic (Patrick Bauchau). They're disaffected intellectual drifters. When Sharon gets visited by a couple of door-to-door Bible thumpers and one of them tries to establish a bond with her by saying, "I was like you once," Sharon smiles wearily, as if her own transgressions were so colossal that admitting them might make her a kind of celebrity of sin. Sharon and Vic have no pursuits besides hedonism; their rejection of all beliefs is their belief system. Their pleasure is an end unto itself, and to hell with tomorrow.

Tomorrow is the main concern of some of Sharon's coworkers, who whisper in the company break room about a mysterious "pearl." They dream about it, and seem to intuitively agree on what it means. But they're protective about their secret; when they catch Sharon eavesdropping on them, they clam up. Sharon is hooked on their furtiveness, their bland confidence that they're onto something she isn't. When she tires of the cruising routine, she approaches them by the photocopier and says she's had the dream, too. "What dream?" one asks. "The pearl," she says. "I dreamed about the pearl." "You can't fake it," another tells her. "Either you have the dream or you don't."

In exchanges like these, Tolkin captures the essence of what makes fundamentalists, or any other kind of completely absorbed believers, so intimidating to anyone who rejects the spiritual life. They're often polite, even pleasant. That's because they know that their embrace of faith is a positive value, and what nonbelievers have is negative: nonbelievers simply don't believe. And here's the trick: In order to formally reject the concept of God, you first have to admit there is something to reject -- a being, an energy field, a mythological concept, something. That's a troubling thing. It can gnaw at you. It gnaws at Sharon. When she presses her coworkers about the dream, their replies are infuriatingly either/or: either you believe or you don't, they tell her. If you don't believe, you'll never be able to understand why we're so happy and complete; deciding to believe makes everything else in life take care of itself. This "leap of faith" notion makes Sharon's sudden decision to purge her life of Vic and all other evidence of sin believable. She has built her life the rejection of societal mores. She feels hollow. The dream of the pearl fills her up.

Tolkin never explains what the pearl symbolizes, but we see it hovering in the skies of Sharon's dreams like the watchful eye of God. The fundamentalist splinter group that interprets the pearl dream's meaning is headed by a nine-year old black prophet of the apocalypse. As Sharon gets deeper in to Bible readings, scripture discussions, prophecies and dreams, her newfound spirituality possesses her. She becomes perpetually pleasant and addresses people with the glassy-eyed politeness of a Stepford Wife. But Tolkin never caricatures her. It's clear that he understands her desperation and respects her newfound love for religion -- her conviction that faith can plaster the cracks in her soul and give her life meaning. (Rogers is a revelation here. Early in the film, she projects earthy, bemused sensuality. Later, her face shows the ravaged lines of late-'60s Jeanne Moreau; when she says she's seen hard times, you believe it.)

I won't divulge the rest of the plot because it takes some startling turns. Suffice it to say that no, Sharon doesn't get deprogrammed; in fact, she rarely expresses doubts about the healthiness of what she's gotten herself into. Tolkin doesn't stage Sharon's predicament as a nightmare voyage into cultdom, but he doesn't make it a slam against fundamentalism, either. He sends Sharon on what can only be characterized as a spiritual journey. Along the way, she is tested, argued with, even pleaded with by friends, but Tolkin doesn't skewer nonbelievers, in the way that secular filmmakers often turn street-corner preachers and hellfire prophets into bellowing, pink-faced ogres. He lends believers and doubters nearly equal weight, which leaves you uncertain as to where he stands -- even at the climax, even when the film climbs to heights of horror that seem to verify everything the pearl cult's child prophet has been warning us about.

What makes The Rapture so frightening is that it takes the Bible literally. It gives certain lines, images, and ideas from the New Testament blatantly concrete form. Like Ingmar Bergman, who gave us a Grim Reaper who was basically a tall guy in a black hooded robe and pancake makeup, Tolkin conceives apocalyptic images that are literal to the point of banality. That's why they're so frightening: anybody who takes Revelations at face value will probably agree with Tolkin's script that when Revelations mentions Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, it's talking about four big guys on horseback who can do you some serious damage. Tolkin's juxtaposition of Biblical apparitions and the threat of a wrathful God against the concrete highways and shining skyscrapers of our fallen world is spooky enough to chill even agnostics to the marrow. He's a steady, controlled deployer of images: he takes everyone's ideas seriously, and envisions them with take-it-or-leave-it forcefulness.

Tolkin's God is as inscrutable as the featureless face of the pearl in Sharon's dreams. He's up there somewhere, stewing the universe around according to a grand plan that he steadfastly refuses to explain. Every now and then he leaks something to privileged handful on earth. They're the people who knock on your door and ask you if you're saved. They're the people at anti-abortion rallies who sweetly hand you pamphlets inscribed with gory photos and threats of damnation. They're human, too. And you'll be able to spot them coming out of this movie: they'll be the ones be talking about what a great documentary they've just seen.

Matt Zoller Seitz is the publisher of Press Play.

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