"The Rapture is coming," reads the promotional tag line for "The Rapture)," a film that deals with the apocalypse and other evangelical Christian tenets. Writer-director Michael Tolkin centers on a telephone operator named Sharon (Mimi Rogers), who leads a wild, vacuous sex life. Tired of reckless sexual encounters, she suddenly converts to fundamentalist Christianity, reaching out to God and becoming "born again."
The idea for "The Rapture" originated after Tolkin watched hours of "Christian TV," which made him sympathetic toward the fundamentalists' cause. "Their diagnosis seemed correct," Tolkin said in a recent interview, "but I disagreed with their prescription. Americans are obsessed with redemption–they are very scared."
The film was conceived as a reaction to all those 1980s movies that "were turning audiences into a mass." At the end of "Shampoo," Warren Beatty's character (George, a womanizer-hairdresser) is left alone and you identify with him. Compare that to "Rocky" and "Indiana Jones," or "E.T.," in which the audience is a violent mass, united against some scapegoat. Movies have become a "lynch mob." Tolkin contrasts the new, simplistic pictures to those that touched him as a kid, movies that "left you with your identity tocuhed, with insight into yourself."
Tolkin's independent movie, about a lost woman who finds temporary comfort through the discovery of God, stirred up controversy at the Telluride Film Festival, where it world-premiered. Tolkin has made an audaciously disturbing movie, both pious and pitiless, one that combines an unabashed avowal of the existence of God and a blood-curdling horror movie. The critics who supported the film saw it as a triumph of suspenseful storytelling and a personal revery.
The first scene of "The Rapture" is set in a room full of telephone operators, each boxed in a little cubicle dispensing names and numbers. The protocol is boring, the faces attentive but vacuous, the voices hushed and affectlesss.
Sharon cruises L.A.'s airport and bars with her European partner, Vic, picking up couples for sex. The orgy scenes project the atmosphere of hardcore porn without the hardcore content. When one of Sharon's pick-ups, a youth named Randy, confesses that he had killed a man for money and she becomes awed by his capacity for evil.
At work, one day Sharon overhears some co-workers muttering about strange signs and coincidences related to the end of the world, the Apocalypse, and the Four Horsemen. First just intrigued, she gradually becomes consumed by her discovery to the point of deciding to forsake her hedonism.
Meanwhile, Randy, embracing her faith out of love for her, marries her and they bear a daughter. Leading a straight life, they rapturously await the end of time. Widowed by a hideous tragedy–Randy is shot in a senseless mass killing–Sharon takes her daughter to the desert and waits for God.
Critic Richard Alleva has suggested that The Rapture turns cruel in the way Flannery O'Connor stories do, punishing the characters for being shallow. In the last 20 minutes, the film breaks free with its former narrative line and takes on a primitive force that recalls TV's Outer Limits or Twilight Zone episode.
When God fails to keep his word, Sharon kills her daughter, then tries to kill herself. Speeding down the highway, she gets arrested and put in jail, where she declares she no longer loves God. But at this very moment, the trumpet roars and the Four Horsemen rise on a TV screen, interrupting a football game.
Ambiguity prevails: In the end, Sharon, like the hero of "Shampoo," is left alone.