The Apostle

Nashville Scene

DIRECTED BY: Robert Duvall

REVIEWED: 02-09-98

In the opening of Robert Duvall's new film The Apostle, a sedan on a lonesome stretch of blacktop pulls to a halt near a cluster of police cars and onlookers. A wrecked car sits silent in the weeds. The sedan door opens, and a man bounds across the field to the scene of the crash. He peers inside and finds a boy covered in blood. Leaning in, he urges the passenger, Christian or no Christian, to use his dying breath to offer his soul to God. His hand administers comfort; his leg kicks wildly at the state trooper who would pull him away. Duty done, the man strides back across the field like joy walking. "Mama," he crows to his beaming mother, "we made news in Heaven this morning." The sedan pulls away.

All told, the scene takes only a few minutes. But how much Duvall is able to accomplish! Right up front, he lets us know that his character, a charismatic Pentecostal evangelist named Euliss "Sonny" Dewey, is a prideful son-of-a-gun with a temper and an ugly streak of self-righteousness. (Too bad if that passenger's a Buddhist.) He's also a devout man, though, and the scene's remarkable coda shows his faith is indeed capable of working miracles. The miracle is that The Apostle never backs away from the contradictions in Sonny's character, or from the jumble of moods and emotions in that first scene. What Duvall has created is the most complex, and certainly the most entertaining, American movie ever made about a flawed man of God.

Is Sonny a fake or a flake? Neither, exactly; but to Duvall's credit as actor, writer, and director, he always leaves us wondering. Sonny leads a thriving congregation in Texas, where he tours the revival circuit like a big-name motivational speaker. Then comes the fall. Fed up with his drinking, his womanizing, and his beatings, his wife Jessie (Farrah Fawcett) strikes up an affair with a younger minister. They wrest away control of his church. Sonny drinks; Sonny rails at his maker all hours of the night. Sonny takes a baseball bat to the young minister's head. The man of God is now a man on the run.

So Sonny throws himself once more in God's hands, and he buries his identity, along with his car, in a pond. At this point, I hate to say more about the plot, because so much of the film's pleasures lie in the casual unfolding of the story and being swept along in Sonny's wake. Let's just say that Duvall sends Sonny on a journey of redemption that isn't in the least bit preachy or sickly sweet; that Barry Markowitz's cinematography captures perfectly the sticky heat and dusty streets of the Deep South; that Duvall envisions an integrated community that isn't a contradiction in terms; and that he lingers over faces and locations that no big-budget venture would give a second look. Sonny's America, a world of jackleg revivals and small-town garages and one-room AM stations, is one we've hardly ever seen at the movies. It even looks like someplace somebody might actually live.

Sonny's flaws are serious and scary, and Duvall doesn't downplay them. Throughout the movie, whenever Sonny does something noble, it's almost always balanced by a twinge of self-preservation, hubris, or personal gain. He can be cowardly--he won't visit his ailing mother (June Carter Cash at her most angelic) because he's ducking the police--and even after he grants himself a spiritual rebirth in a muddy creek, he's not above settling an argument with his fists. Indeed, Duvall suggests his faith may only reinforce his dangerous self-righteousness.

But in most movies, Sonny's failings as a human being would prove him a scam artist: He'd be Elmer Gantry, or Steve Martin's slick-talking hustler in Leap of Faith. Instead, Sonny's genuine spirituality coexists uneasily with a hotheaded nature--the age-old war between mind and flesh. If he were conning people, he wouldn't risk capture by building a new congregation. If he were perfect, he'd have no need to seek or extol redemption.

Duvall plays Sonny the preacher as a born entertainer, and, refreshingly, he doesn't think that makes Sonny a hypocrite. The church I attended as a kid was Baptist, not Pentecostal, but every year we waited to see what the visiting revival preacher would have up his sleeve. One told humorous sermon-length anecdotes; another passed out "Bible Bucks" with Jesus' face on them. But nobody doubted the sincerity of their message; if anything, people were grateful for the effort. Duvall spent years researching the world of grassroots evangelism, and the early glimpses he gives us of religion as traveling show are wonderful: a tent revival where Sonny and a half-dozen preachers line up and trade off testimony like jazz soloists; a bilingual Hispanic service where he demonstrates Jesus reckoning Godzilla-style vengeance on "el Diablo."

The cast mixes non-professional and untrained actors with ringers like Billy Bob Thornton and Miranda Richardson; among the many memorable supporting players, Zelma Loyd as a parishioner, Rick Dial (the repair-shop owner in Sling Blade) as a radio-station owner, and Billy Joe Shaver as Sonny's loyal pal stand out. But the movie is Robert Duvall's triumph from start to finish. As a send-off, he gives himself a 20-minute sermon that's one rousing, resourceful piece of screen acting, an incantation of fervor, fear, and regret that arcs like lightning. Sonny Dewey may not be touched by divine inspiration, but his creator--well, that's another story.

--Jim Ridley

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