The Rapture, written and directed by Michael Tolkin, and starring Mimi Rogers in a stunning (and unprecedented, for her) performance, is a harrowing experience which seems to come from out of a clear blue sky. It is noticeably low-budget (there are no extras, it is mostly interiors, and the special effects are often fudged), but that adds to its gritty brutal (and also dreamlike) atmosphere. If there were more money, perhaps the special effects would be more elaborate, but something essential would be lost. The End Days are here, in The Rapture, and the Book of Revelations gives us many frightening and beautiful images of what that will be like. A CGI-fanatic would have a field day with some of those passages. In The Rapture the end of the world and the second coming is merely suggested (and quite effectively), and it keeps the focus where it should be: on the story at hand and the philosophical and moral implications at stake, as well as the raw relentless fearless performance by Mimi Rogers at the center of it. It’s one of the best pieces of acting I have ever seen.
The Rapture is Tolkin’s first film as a director. He was finding his way, learning as he went. Rogers said that she and Tolkin did a two month “emotional intensive” before shooting. They would meet in a big warehouse space, and Tolkin would give her acting exercises – playing snippets of music and having her react, with her body (allowing no forethought, no planning: just go). He wanted her stripped down to her essentials, he wanted her without protection. He also sensed in her, the person, a kind and caretaking impulse, and he wanted her to get past that in order to play the character. Mimi Rogers, in real life, is a person with good manners, who is always consumed with making other people feel comfortable. Tolkin wanted her to look at that, and also leave that OUT of the character. Tolkin and she would go out to breakfast together and he would say to her, “I want you to see what it feels like to not say ‘please’ or ‘thank you’ when you are talking to the waiter.” Rogers found the exercise so painful. It went against everything she believed in, but it gave her the narcissism and selfishness of the character’s psychology. The private work they did before filming pays off, and tenfold.
Sharon, the character, is a woman who negotiates her empty life with an almost agonizing buzz of unacknowledged pain at the heart of every moment. Her life is about narcotizing that pain through random sex, cigarettes, booze, pushing herself further and further into experiences – orgies, swinging, anything goes … because she is unable to feel anything. Something in her has been cauterized. Perhaps she was always this way, or perhaps the years have done a number on her, deadening her to joy and beauty. The reasons for why she is the way she is are left out. It’s part of the film’s power. Knowing that Mimi Rogers is not actually like Sharon, in real life, makes her performance even more astonishing. There are hard edges to Sharon, a coldness, a detached amusement at the foibles and follies of her fellow man. She has no compassion.
Mimi Rogers said a very interesting thing about her character, “You know how it is when you’re in great pain. People who are in great pain are very selfish – it’s so difficult to look around and see other people and realize what they might be going through when you’re in so much pain …”
So that was how she approached Sharon, in the first half of the film.
I don’t want to say too much about the film, because watching it unfold is part of its horror and power. Sharon is a telephone operator, who spends her nights cruising the streets of Los Angeles with her corrupt “boyfriend”, looking for couples to seduce. In this way she meets an aimless yet kind of sweet guy named Randy (played by David Duchovny, in one of his first major roles). The sex is graphic in The Rapture, graphic and yet totally un-erotic. Sharon can’t get “lost” in sex, because there’s nothing really in her that COULD get lost. She is a shell of a person. So the orgy goes on, and at the heart of it is Sharons’ barely-hidden contempt for everyone and everything. Interspersed with these lush disturbing sex scenes, are scenes that take place in the cold clinical bank of cubicles, where Sharon sits, redirecting calls, monotonously. The juxtaposition fills the screen with emptiness.
Sharon’s apartment is all beige, with nothing in it besides furniture. No pictures on the wall, the kitchen looks unused, it’s not a lived-in space. All of the spaces in this film have an eerie unearthly look to them – and perhaps that was partly due to the lack of money for big-time set decoration and production design – but it ends up working. Sharon is not IN this world. She is connected to nothing.
Randy (Duchovny) is lost, too. In a key scene, he confesses to her one night that he once killed a man for a thousand dollars.
Sharon is incapable of connection, not just with her fellow man, but with herself. Randy wonders if we would think that murder was wrong if we were not taught that murder was wrong. It’s a level of conversation Sharon finds irritating. It demands too much. Watching Mimi Rogers deal with Duchovny in this scene is to watch an actress who is not “acting”. She IS Sharon, reacting as Sharon would react – and therefore it is unpredictable and without cliches.
Through a couple of haunting encounters and overheard conversations, Sharon begins to feel like something is coming. Some event. She overhears things. People whisper at the lunch table in the cafeteria and then stop whispering when she sits down with them. Something is going on, something everyone else seems to know about. She overhears something about “the pearl”, something about “the boy”. What is it? What does it mean? She wonders if maybe she is missing out. She wants to be a part of the group, the group that whispers together in the lunch room.
Two men in ties show up at her door to tell her about the final days, and that she needs to be prepared.
The film goes into a realm that few films go into and it is astonishing to watch. It takes the Book of Revelations literally, and because of that the characters do not come off (as they usually do in movies) as caricatures. Religion is treated in a condescending manner in a lot of films, and here, the ballast is stripped away, and “religion” separates itself from “churches” and “organized religion”, and becomes an evocation of a LIVING faith, almost a living organism, breathing and pulsing in the air, leaving a wide wake around her. She scoffs at the message given by the two men at the door (which is not, let’s remember, a message of love. It is a message of “repent or else …”) and yet she keeps engaging them in conversation. Something in her wants to know. The scene is amazing. You keep waiting for the judgmental caricatures to arise, you keep waiting for the filmmaker to start making fun of these people … but Tolkin is up to something else here. It’s disorienting at first, and I remember my first reaction to the film: it so upended convention that I wasn’t sure where I was for the first hour of it. I’m not a literal Biblical fundamentalist by any means, but it was riveting to see a film that took them at their word. The film is not outside. The film does not sneer at such people. And so the proselytizers who show up at her door are not fire-breathing dragons. They are quite gentle, and understanding … One of them looks at Sharon and says (without condescension), “I used to be like you.” Sharon snorts with contempt. “I doubt it.” It is the lack of snotty condescension that moves this film into another realm, a realm of actual exploration and examination.
Sharon experiences a conversion. It is total and complete.
I hesitate to say more.
For me, the film is, when you get right down to it, about Mimi Rogers’ face. Its transformations, its naked pain, its fearless openness. At times it is hard to look at her.
She experiences the love of God for the first time, and her entire life transforms. She turns a corner. Nothing fits anymore. And you can see the change in her face. You see softness there, joy. She sits at her telephone operator cubicle – and tries to spread the good news to the poor folks looking for the number of the ASPCA in Oakland. She is supposed to spend a maximum amount of 15 seconds on each call. Her calls are now averaging 7 minutes. Her boss calls her into his office to reprimand her. Now. For me, this was the most important scene in the film, and one that is so deftly handled – so delicately set up – that its power is so subtle you might miss it. Rogers said about this scene in the commentary, “Your vulnerability blossoms when someone shows you kindness.”
We all know what the cliche is for such scenes: Gruff boss man who has no understanding tells his employee to knock the shit off. And to some degree, yes, that is how the scene begins. But The Rapture coudn’t be less interested in cliches. Mimi Rogers does not play Sharon simply. She isn’t suddenly on her high horse, shouting, “I’m saved and you’re not!” She does not judge her fellow man. No. Just like the gentle man who showed up at her door and said, “I used to be like you …” she now knows that she holds a precious gift that needs to be shared. It is quite urgent. Not just the message of God’s love but the message of the final days. People need to be prepared. These are difficult things to play. One wrong step and the entire thing would unravel. Mimi Rogers does not take the easy way out. There is not one moment of “attitude” (which is what a college acting professor used to call cliched acting. “Get rid of the ‘attitude’,” he’d say to an actor who was taking the easy way out by going with a caricature rather than something real). Rogers almost pleads with her boss. Watch how he responds. And watch how she responds in turn. THAT is why this film is difficult and awesome. THAT scene.
The Book of Revelations is not a metaphor. It is actually a set of instructions and a warning: “Here is how it’s gonna go.” Never once does Tolkin step outside saying, “Heh heh, look at these nutbags …” He follows events to their most logical conclusion. And it’s not pretty.
This is not an easy film. For anyone. It’s infuriating. I found it nearly unwatchable at times, it made me so mad and edgy. It’s confrontational. Good. Films SHOULD be confrontational. If you’re the type of person who snickers at people who are religious, who sees all religions as a kind of cult, who writes people off who believe in such things – then this film will be totally confrontational, because you will never get a break and Tolkin never winks at you, saying, “Don’t worry … I’m with you …” I have no idea what Tolkin believes, and I couldn’t be less interested. In this story, in this movie, to these people, the Book of Revelations is literal, and so he follows that path. If you’re the type of person who believes wholly in a God of love and compassion, who doesn’t think too much about the final days, and who believes that good works are just as important as faith, then this film will drive you up the wall. Because it has no interest in your kumbaya hippie-dippie “isn’t love enough?” concerns. Tolkin decides to believe that they mean what they say. Whether or not he believes it in actuality is irrelevant. The Rapture examines what it would be like if you believed it. I suppose too if you’re one of those “I’m saved and you’re not” people, you would also find the film deeply confrontational, because Sharon’s journey has nothing to do with snotty pride or putting herself above others. And she pays a horrible price for her belief. As horrible as can be imagined. None of the believers in the film have that snottiness, or display any Jesus Camp kind of craziness. They are quiet, firm, and gentle. If you believe, they know. It is an “elect” club, no question about it.
Tolkin doesn’t pull his punches.
There comes a moment, late in the film, when Sharon realizes that God doesn’t pull his punches either. That He meant what He said. He’s not fucking around. The Bible is literal. Can she do it? Can she do what He asks?
It’s shattering. A shattering film.
Tolkin wrote the novel The Player – and he also wrote the screenplay for the Robert Altman film of the same name, another cold clinical excavation of an entire self-defined world with an insular mindset that might seem foreign to those not a part of it. You’re either in that world, or you’re out of it. If you live in Los Angeles you know that there is only one business. When people say “the business” in Los Angeles, they are not talking about construction or plumbing or education (although all of those businesses exist in Los Angeles as well). It’s “THE business”. It is an exclusive world, and only the elect get to join. Some odd similarities, if you think about it, even though the people in The Rapture are part of a very different club. And Tolkin, in The Player doesn’t chicken out at the end, although you think he might. Griffin Mill is a product of Hollywood and he behaves accordingly. He is hollow, just like that world is hollow, and any question of art has been long forgotten. He commits a murder. But in Griffin Mill’s world, he could get away with it. He could “spin” it.
It’s one of the most cynical movies ever made.
Tolkin wrote The Rapture too, and while I would not call it cynical, I would call it brutal. There is no rest. There is no peace. There is just a price that must be paid. God’s voice is a subtext here: Look, man, you read the Bible, you think I didn’t mean what I said in it? I TOLD you it would be like this, so don’t whine about it now. You KNEW what you were getting into. Pay up.
Mimi Rogers gives one of the all-time great performances, as far as I’m concerned. I’d put her on a level with Gena Rowlands here – and I don’t put anyone on a level with Gena Rowlands. No director has come along and made Mimi Rogers his muse, in the way John Cassavetes made Gena Rowlands his muse … and so Rogers’ career has stagnated (although it was wonderful to see her in the nearly wordless and totally nude scene in Door in the Floor: I watched her stand there, with full frontal nudity, at her age, with Jeff Bridges staring at her critically, there’s no soft light, it’s an unforgiving shot: not sexual, but objectifying, and awful … and when I saw her there, and realized it was her, I thought again of The Rapture, and her boundless courage, and thought: “Damn. That woman is fearless. Why isn’t she, to coin a phrase, more of a ‘player’? She’s not on the list of ‘great actresses’ when people talk about the greats of today … but she damn well should be.”)
It’s not a perfect film, by any means, and on some level, it might not even be a very good film. The little girl playing Mimi Rogers’ daughter is awful (and it’s a crucial part, terribly important). It might seem mean to criticize a little girl, but her performance is so terrible that it threatened to pull me out of it, which, in a film like this, just can’t happen. There are also some Ed Wood-esque special effects that make you wince, but in the end, all of that lessens in importance.
The reason to see it is Mimi Rogers. Not many actresses (or people, for that matter) are that honest with themselves, that fearless in showing us their ugliness and pettiness and fear. Perhaps fame is its own jail, making actresses more cautious in their choices, more protective. You see it time and time again. At the time of The Rapture, Mimi Rogers had nothing to lose so she tossed herself ferociously into that part with an abandon that puts other actresses to shame.