Weekly Wire
Weekly Alibi The Lord's Work

By Angie Drobnic

FEBRUARY 16, 1998:  There is something inherently and undeniably cool about Robert Duvall, and it seems like there always has been. His first film role, so often forgotten, was as the strange recluse Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird with Gregory Peck. Then there was his turn as Major Frank Burns in Robert Altman's MASH, his role as the quiet yet formidable consigliere in The Godfather movies and his inspired performance as the maniacal surfing colonel in Apocalypse Now ("It smells like ... victory"). You might expect that such an actor--when writing, producing, directing and starring in his own film--would pick for his topic something sophisticated and ironic. Instead, Duvall has chosen to make The Apostle, a modest story of a Southern evangelical preacher and his church.

Or churches, as it were. Sonny Dewey, Duvall's character, is a successful minister in Texas with a beautiful wife (Farrah Fawcett) and two kids. But his wife has fallen for a younger minister and uses the church bylaws to expel Sonny from the church. In a rage, Sonny confronts the two, bashing his wife's lover in the head with a baseball bat. Sonny must go on the road to escape the law, and he ends up in Bayou Boutte, a small Louisiana town. There, he rebaptizes himself the Apostle E.F. and sets about creating a new church.

Duvall portrays Sonny as a man of strong passions with strong flaws, but the film never stereotypes its characters. Indeed, there is not a moment of condescension toward Sonny, his churchgoers or their beliefs. Hollywood traditionally has problems depicting religion, the South or the poor without lapsing into trite or downright mocking clichés (for instance, Forrest Gump or Elmer Gantry), but Duvall has made a film with a more documentary feel to it that doesn't shape its own judgments. In the film's opening, Duvall uses a fascinating and straightforward montage of Sonny's preaching, including a revival where the ministers hand the microphone off to each other like tag team wrestlers, a lecture hall of men who chant "Jesus! Jesus!" in unison and a tiny tent where Sonny preaches along with a Spanish translator.

Many nonactors bring an added realism to the film, and among the professionals, Duvall has lined up a strong cast. Farrah Fawcett, as Sonny's wife, reminds people that she can still act; while British actress Miranda Richardson (of Damage and Tom & Viv) nails the Southern mannerisms of Sonny's Louisiana love interest, Toosie. Country music icons June Carter Cash as Sonny's mother and Billy Joe Shaver as Sonny's friend, Joe, are simply perfect for their roles. Billy Bob Thornton also has a disturbing cameo as the town racist. But it is actor John Beasley who has the most interesting turn as a retired black preacher who Sonny comes to for help to get a new church going. Beasley plays Reverend Blackwell with a quiet intensity, asking Sonny right from the start, "Why should I trust you?"

Trust is a big issue in a film about evangelical religion--so many depictions of ministers in both film and the media portray them as self-serving hucksters. Duvall neither glosses over nor ignores the elements of Sonny's work that are ego-driven; rather, he complicates it. As the film progresses toward its conclusion in which Sonny's past will inevitably catch up to him, the questions the film raises become more incisive: What is the moral balance when one considers the Apostle's good works, his past sins and his human flaws? And is his religion something that defines him and his work, or does it chiefly serve to comfort him in the face of his failings?

The film offers no definitive answers. Duvall presents his complex story in a simple way, and viewers are forced to come to their own conclusions. The Apostle is admittedly a most unglamorous film; Duvall even ended up having to bankroll it himself because Hollywood just didn't get it. But with The Apostle's careful treatment of its subject matter, the gamble succeeds. And Duvall's own performance is simply stellar--he preaches with a rhythm and intensity that becomes performance art. He proves, once again, that he's still one of the most interesting and provocative artists working in film.

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