The Apostle

Austin Chronicle

DIRECTED BY: Robert Duvall

REVIEWED: 02-09-98

The movies haven't portrayed the evangelical preacher in a very flattering light, suffice to say. Invariably, this man of the cloth is depicted as a hymn-singing, prayer-spouting charlatan who hypocritically breaks the commandments with a singular regularity. That's one reason that The Apostle is an astonishing work: It defies the stereotype. Its protagonist, Sonny Dewey, is not some gross exaggeration, but rather a flesh-and-blood human being with flaws, two critical ones being a wandering eye and a homicidal jealousy. After committing a very serious infraction against the laws of man and God, Sonny flees Texas for the wilderness of Louisiana, like some Biblical prophet. Changing his identity, in a quest to both lose and find himself, he christens himself "The Apostle" and seeks to start his own church, one that is based on a fundamental faith divorced from material trappings and other distractions. In the course of this journey, Sonny achieves a degree of redemption when he finally comes face-to-face with his past sins. The story scripted by Duvall in The Apostle is, in many ways, reminiscent of the work of Horton Foote, which is not surprising, given that Foote wrote Tender Mercies, the film for which Duvall deservedly won an Oscar. The themes are simple, the dialogue is sparse, the characters are everyday folk. And there is something so American about it all, from the roof-rattling tent revivals to the junked cars in front yards to the quiet desperation that people endure in their lives from day to day. In his capacity as screenwriter and director, Duvall is careful to avoid sentimentality and easy answers, which gives The Apostle a vibrant ring of truth. (This integrity may not become apparent until after the film is over; it's an observation that gradually sinks in, after replaying the movie in your head.) In the film's most moving scene, Sonny compassionately converts a man threatening to raze the church he's worked so hard to build, as the rest of the congregation looks on. It is a scene in sharp contrast to an earlier one in which Sonny resorts to physical violence in protecting his tabernacle against the same man, who's played by good ol' boy du jour Thornton. In many ways, The Apostle is the tale of Sonny's conversion as well, from a wrathful creature of the Old Testament to a man shaped by New Testament ideals. Of course, then there is Duvall, the consummate actor. Whether strutting like a bantam rooster for the Lord, fervently calling himself a "genuine Holy Ghost, Jesus-filled preaching machine," or humbly acknowledging the folly of his actions, Duvall inhabits the character of Sonny, completely disappearing into the man's skin. In interacting with other members of the film's fine cast (including the immensely watchable Richardson as a fleeting love interest), he creates a rapport that only enhances their performances. Duvall is a true original, who -- along with Hackman, Newman, and others -- proves that older is sometimes better. His The Apostle is a genuine labor of love that both literally and figuratively graces the movie screen. Say amen to that.

4.0 stars

--Steve Davis

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