Sonny Dewey is the most richly enigmatic character Robert Duvall has ever
played - a Pentecostal preacher from Texas who sees himself as God's messenger,
yet he's also a sinner, a man prone to violence. "The Apostle" is Duvall's
third directorial effort, and it is an uncompromising effort but it is not as
successful a portrait of a torn man as I had expected.
At the start of the film, we see Sonny stopping to see the severe wreckage from
a bad car accident. He runs over to a badly wounded driver and tells him that
the Lord will save him. Somebody better tell Sonny that the Lord should save
him, too. Sonny's wife (Farrah Fawcett) is about to divorce him, although he
doesn't want to be separated from his kids. Eventually, Sonny takes out his
anger on his wife's lover, a pastor, whom he knocks out with a baseball bat at
his kids' baseball game. Knowing that he may face prison, Sonny skips town and
decides to rebaptize himself as E.F., the Apostle. In the process, he leaves
behind his old mother (country singer June Carter Cash) and his two lovely
children in Texas.
Sonny migrates to a chiefly black bayou town called Lafayette in Louisiana
where, within minutes, he casts a spell on the entire population. A DJ already
knows him as "The Apostle," and lets Sonny advertise on the local radio station
about finding some followers, as long as he doesn't speak in tongues. A young
mechanic lets Sonny stay at his house and gives him a sports car. Sonny
eventually convinces a retired local minister (John Beasley) to rebuild a
church, and persuades many black churchgoers to join his congregation by giving
away food supplies and by chanting with great energy on the air waves. He's a
man impossible to resist and to dislike - a man eager to please God and all who
follow Him. A secretary (Miranda Richardson) is also struck by his charisma,
and begins dating him.
Sonny's past, however, continues to intrude upon his escape. His mother is
dying, and his wife is ready to send the police after him since the pastor he
conked in the head is in a coma. But Sonny is not going to down without a fight
- he's on God's side and always asks Him for advice.
The one question we're left with in "The Apostle" is just who is Sonny? As Kris
Kristofferson once put it, he's a walking contradiction. Sonny loves God and
seeks to carry out his Word, but he doesn't necessarily practice what he
preaches. For starters, he's a man prone to violence considering he knocks out
his wife's lover, and has a fist fight with a redneck racist (Billy Bob
Thornton) at his new church. There are obviously demons that Sonny has to
grapple with, but what are they? Where does his violent behavior stem from? I
have known some ministers to do wild things and go to prison as punishment -
they are only human, after all - but what kind of man is Sonny beyond his wild
acts of faith and his sermons?
The problem lies not with Duvall's performance, but with the various plot holes
in the story. For one, why is he thrown out of his congregation in Texas when
everyone seems to love him? Did his wife actually run it? And why does his wife
leave him? There is something to suggest that Sonny is a philanderer but
writer-director Duvall never dwells into it, or Sonny's past.
"The Apostle" is an accomplished piece of filmmaking; it is well-acted and
well-staged. The scenes in the churches where everyone preaches and sings to
the Lord are dazzling and enticing to witness. An interesting sideline to the
film is that most of the supporting players are actual churchgoers in Lafayette
bringing a level of authenticity that Hollywood rarely reaches. Particularly
compelling is Robert Duvall who brings a certain dignity and humanity that
should not go unrewarded or unnoticed - he's always on the move, and always
dancing and praising the Lord with vigor. Also worth mentioning is the
ubiquitous Billy Bob Thornton as the redneck who has an incredible scene where
he threatens to bulldoze Sonny's church and, right before our eyes, Sonny
manages to convert him.
"The Apostle" is a fine film made in the same spirit and atmospheric look as
Billy Bob Thornton's own directorial effort "Sling Blade," another tale set in
the South. Both films succeed in documenting the people in the South without
condescending them or presenting them as stereotypes. "The Apostle," however,
is more likely to be remembered for Duvall's tour-de-force performance than
anything else. Like "Kundun," another film about a spiritual leader, "The
Apostle" leaves you with more questions than answers.
Copyright © 1998 Jerry Saravia