A scene at the beginning of Robert Duvall's astonishingly accomplished
second feature, The Apostle, is one of the most haunting and ambiguous
of the past year's films. Driving with his mom (a spectral June Carter Cash)
along a West Texas bi-way, Sonny Dewey (Duvall) pulls over at the site of a
multi-car accident. Good Book in tow, he sneaks past the police to a wreck deep
in a field and proceeds to save the souls of the grievously injured couple
within. Vanity, exploitation, compassion, and the ecstasy of redemption vie for
dominance of the moment until a deputy drags Sonny away. "I guess you think you
accomplished something in there," the lawman asks. "I'd rather die today and go
to Heaven," Sonny announces, "than live to be a hundred and go to Hell."
Sonny, though, does not get off so easily. Self-described as "on the Devil's
hit list and on Jesus's mailing list," he's leaning these days to the former. A
drinker, spouse abuser, and womanizer (traits unexplicitly but poignantly
suggested), he's on the outs with wife Jessie (Farrah Fawcett, one of the
film's few casting misfires). She takes up with younger minister Horace (Todd
Allen), seeks a divorce, separates Sonny from his two children ("my beauties"),
and wrests ownership of his church from him. Bereft of all he loves and moved
by less than holy spirits, Sonny beats Horace "like a one-legged stepchild"
(one of the film's many gems of dialogue), then has to hit the road and try to
be born again for real.
Through chance and divine intervention he ends up in the Louisiana backwater
of Bayou Boutte, his name changed to the enigmatic "the Apostle E.F.," and
Duvall's story becomes an alternately genial and irreverent Christian allegory
in a setting that's part Forrest Gump, part Flannery O'Connor. Told in an
offhand, naturalistic style (Duvall credits as influence British socialist
filmmaker Ken Loach, who has unfortunately opted for a more formulaic approach
in his upcoming Carla's Song), the film proceeds languidly, sparked by
sly disclosures and inversions of expectations characteristic of Duvall's
subtle, subversive humor.
The laidback narrative sets the stage for the film's fire and brimstone and
often hilarious performances. Duvall seems both possessed and ironically beside
himself as he surges through his role. In a prelapsarian montage he's shown on
tour sharing the pulpit with various multicultural colleagues. Pumped up,
jerking about with a panache combining James Brown and Richard Nixon, he takes
center stage at every venue. He's upstaged only once, when his high-stepping
"stomping for Jesus" is mirrored by a frenzied latina translator with
comically surreal effect.
The Apostle gets down to serious business once ensconced in Bayou
Boutte, however, where E.F. sets forth to build a new church. Taking on the
abandoned parish of a local minister, the kindly, ailing Charles Blackwell
(John Beasley), E.F. refurbishes a boardgame-piece-like chapel (attaching a
neon sign reading "One Way Road to Heaven" in the shape of an unabashedly
phallic upturned arrow) and pieces together a following with a rinky-dink bus
and paid-for spots on the local radio station.
Plying his trade on the airwaves, he attracts the coy eye of Toosie (Miranda
Richardson in Susan Sarandon mode) and the callow worship of Sam (a slackjawed
Walter Goggins), two disciples who prove more schematic than redemptive. More
substantive is the radio station's owner, Elmo (Rick Dial), a good-natured,
slovenly skeptic who provides the whispered play-by-play behind an unexpected
on-the-air conversion. It's the occasion of the flourishing flock's first
picnic, which is threatened by redneck troublemaker Billy Bob Thornton's
bulldozer. Like the car-wreck conversion, the scene is a masterpiece of
changing tones, ranging from the farcical to the beatific; it's enough to touch
Elmo's flabby, good-old-boy heart and even move cynical listeners.
This apostle, though, dwells not in the New Testament but in Duvall's lovingly
if unevenly re-created real world. Sonny's past won't let the reborn E.F.
alone, and the nagging conflict is awkwardly handled through surreptitious
phone calls and creaky plot devices. No matter -- E.F.'s church is a triumphant
achievement, a joyous kindergarten of adults and children of various ages and
races extolling their faith and joy and acknowledging their frailties and
strengths (the congregation, played mostly by local amateurs, ranks among the
most vivid in recent films) in a ragged hymn of praise. However shortlived it
all may be, as E.F. reflects toward the end, he has accomplished something --
as has, indeed, his creator.