THE APOSTLE (1997)
Produced by Rob Carliner
Directed by Robert Duvall
Executive Producer Robert Duvall
Starring Robert Duvall, Farrah Fawcett, John Beasley, Billy Bob Thorton
Length 148 minutes
"Sonny" Dewey (Duvall) is a charismatic preacher who has a deep faith in God and intense
dedication to church and evangelical life. His marriage, however, is in ruins: his wife
(Fawcett) is having an affair with a younger church member. One day, Sonny loses control
and is forced to flee everything he knows, in order to escape arrest. This flight leads
Sonny to an unexpected opportunity - and God-purposed fate.
While Robert Duvall is by no means ignored as a formidable film artist, his performance in THE APOSTLE seems quite underrated and certainly unpopular. Of course, successful profiles of "over-the-hill" stars are seldom attained - except for Michael Cain, Anthony Hopkins (sadly mainly due to his role as Hannibal Lecter), the one-trick-dog Sean Connery, and...is Pacino "over-the-hill"? Duvall is neither "sophisticated" or properly spoken or a lucky one-trick-dog or as Hollywood-blessed from his role in THE GODFATHER as well-deserving Al. Yet he possesses a peculiar rhythm and style all his own, enabling a critic or a fan to say, "That was pure Duvall," as confidently as folks once rightly said, "That was pure DeNiro" (before Bobby resigned himself to pitiful self-caricatures and lame scripts).
Even in the action-based, fast-paced Bruckheimer film GONE IN 60 SECONDS (which I strangely enjoy), Robert Duvall seasons his scenes with patience, with coolness, and with masterful facial expressions that say a thousand words.
Such is true in THE APOSTLE. I consider this film to be Duvall's tour de force: a less-intricate CITIZEN KANE done in a similar jack-of-all-trades approach as Welles (writing, directing, starring). Though the Sonny character (played by Duvall) echoes the Southern jerk-turned-soft in A FAMILY THING (with James Earl Jones), there is more conflict at work. Sonny is truly a willing servant of God; he genuinely wishes and tries to behave and act saintly: praying for folks, supporting the church, encouraging revival and the rejection of evil. Yet Sonny (thankfully) isn't the typical Hollywood-depicted hypocrite preacher besmirched with countless misdemeanors and perversions. Nor is he a prim, faultless man. Sonny is a man. He may pray for the salvation of two doomed victims of a car wreck, but he has noticeable weaknesses of the flesh. He may drop off groceries to the needy, but he has a violent temper. He may be the loudest voice on the revival trail, but he falls into the sin of pride when he dances into church waving a generous offering donation.
When Sonny discovers his wife is having an affair with a younger man of the church, he comes quite close to resorting to a loaded revolver as revenge. Instead he throws a rock through the window of the adulterer's bedroom: an announcement to his wife that he knows. These types of conflict examples pop up several times within the first half hour of the movie. The viewer is not fooled into trusting Sonny as a next-to-flawless man only to have the "other side" deliver an appalled shock. A poignant scene: Sonny paces his bedroom, loudly talking to God, requesting answers. He states his case, admits his sins (womanizing, etc.), and implores God for peace: "Give me peace. Give me peace." Sonny is not afraid to be frank with his Friend. He yells to God that he's mad at Him. (The neighbor calls Sonny's mother and complains about the noise. His mother humorously says Sonny's always like that when he's having it out with God.)
After an accidental incident of violence (whacking his wife's paramour with a baseball bat) Sonny flees South, ditches his car, and becomes a fugitive tramp on the road. Constant, earnest prayer is wonderfully depicted by Duvall: illustrating Sonny's energetic relentlessness to follow God's Way, to find his purpose, to rectify his askew situation. Sonny literally leaves the path to God. A series of events ends up with Sonny starting a new church in a small community in Georgia. He hides his past long enough to establish the congregation. Meanwhile, his victim back home has died. Duvall oddly doesn't allow Sonny to show much remorse for his manslaughter, nor a very dramatic reaction to news of his mother's death. This downplayed attention to very serious matters is probably a stumbling block for many critics and fans. Just when the viewer accepts Sonny's flight from home, his folly and crime is compounded into accidental murder. But Duvall masterfully "pulls it off": subtly balancing this selfish deafness to Sonny's immediate guilt and Sonny's miraculous role as harbinger of goodwill and inspiration and genuine, Godly love to the community. It seems as if Sonny squelches his due guilt and sorrow in order to clearly finish his mission, saving justice and punishment for later. Perhaps this is all part of the Plan. Perhaps Sonny is less "cold"---and "too warm" in regard to the larger scheme.
The closing scene of THE APOSTLE is one of the most perfectly executed one-man performances in film. Knowing that his time of arrest is near (the police wait outside of the church), Sonny squeezes in his Garden of Gethsemane swan song, so to speak. Sonny's message is about redemption, about forgiveness, about salvation. Duvall seems possessed by the character now, fully integrated, seeming to flawlessly adlib the loud-then-soft-then-loud Pentacostal sermon from his very heart. "Do you want to be on the devil's hit list? Then you'd better get on Jesus' mailing list!" he cries. Duvall's convincing performance encourages a ("Holy Ghost Power!") catharsis for the viewer that cannot be more effective in a real-life Baptist church. The cathartic regret of Sonny's inevitable incarceration is manifested in Sonny's loyal friend and helper Sammy. The young man breaks down in tears, but Sonny, once outside to be arrested, tells him to take care of the church, to keep the legacy intact. I couldn't help but think of Christ's words with the resentful Peter during his arrest.
Duvall assures the viewer that Sonny's mission is never over during the credits: working on a chain gang clearing weeds, Sonny leads the prisoners in chant-like rhetoric as they labor. "Though I walk through the valley who is my lord and savior?" "JESUS!" "He's our what?" "JESUS!" "Again?" "JESUS!" "One more time?" "JESUS!" "If I jump up and down, who jumps up and down with me?" "JESUS!"
What other actor has the guts for such stigmatized subject matter?
review by D. Herrle 11/2002
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