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The Boston Phoenix Prophet and Loss

Robert Duvall's "The Apostle" makes converts

By Peter Keough

FEBRUARY 2, 1998: 

THE APOSTLE, Written and directed by Robert Duvall. With Robert Duvall, Farrah Fawcett, Miranda Richardson, Todd Allen, John Beasley, June Carter Cash, Walter Goggins, Billy Joe Shaver, Billy Bob Thornton, Rick Dial, Mary Lynette Braxton, Zelma Loyd and Sister Jewell Jernigan. An October Films release.

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.

The word of Bob

While in Boston last fall playing a ruthless lawyer battling John Travolta in the locally shot Class Action, Robert Duvall found time to chat about The Apostle, a film that he wrote and directed and in which he plays a member of another maligned profession -- pentecostal preachers.

"From the days of Gone with the Wind they've gotten a caricature treatment from mainstream entertainment," says Duvall of the intolerant, repressed, hypocritical, corrupt image these men and women of God have taken on from the media and movies. "The only time I ever saw it done right was a cameo played by Ned Beatty in Wise Blood. True, some of these guys are a bit too vocal about being judgmental and it'll come back to haunt them. Like that guy Jimmy Swaggart -- I mean, come on. But I think they all basically want to do good. Sometimes the ones that get on television are seduced by nouveau riche-ness and everything goes out the window. But when you get in the rank and file with these people, black and white both, there are some wonderful people."

It was in the rank-and-file of fundamentalism that Duvall first was inspired to make The Apostle.

"Way back I was doing an Off Broadway play and I played a guy from Arkansas, so I thought I'd just stop off in that area, just to see what it was like. I bumped into a bunch of roadworkers from northern Louisiana and I went to one of their little churches round the corner. It was my first visit; I'd never seen that on television or on a movie or anything, these kind of guys, these preachers. I figured it would be interesting to play one someday, so I put it in the back of my mind."

Way back, apparently. It would be more than a dozen years before Duvall invested $5 million of his own money to make the film. This was money well spent: the film, and in particular Duvall's acting, has been critically hailed; he's been voted best actor by the National and Boston Societies of Film Critics and is a dark horse for an Oscar nomination. Part of the electricity of his performance is in his preaching scenes -- he indeed seems to be channeling the Spirit.

"The character could be a mechanic, he could be any guy, his profession is secondary," Duvall demurs. "But the fact that it's this profession, it makes it different, so you have to do a lot of homework. So it is a different experience. But I think that the overall acting is about the same. After a couple of takes you know when it's right, the director knows when it's right, and you're kind of on the same wavelength.

"On the other hand, though, I was in a church in Harlem once where we went to six services in one morning, and I sat up there in the chorus with members of the Metropolitan Opera. They sang one of their songs and during the course of that singing I really had quite an emotional experience. It could have been interpreted as a complete thing if I had wanted to, if I had gone that way. But I didn't; I'm not of that persuasion."

Moving from the sacred to the profane, second-time director Duvall (his first film was Angelo, My Love, in 1983) was bemused to hear that sometime actor Quentin Tarantino would be reprising Duvall's old stage role of the killer in Wait Until Dark (the show gets a pre-Broadway run at the Shubert Theatre next month).

"Is he an actor, too? He's a talented guy. And he might be good in that part. I did it on Broadway, but I did it so long ago. He'd probably be better at it now. He won't have to wear a mask; he's pretty scary as it is."

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