Reviewed by: Mark Gilman
Although self-admittedly not a “churchgoer”, Robert Duvall has wanted to bring “The Apostle” to the big screen for 13 years. After watching his work, financed with $5 million of his own money, I’m glad he did—I’m just wondering why?
“The Apostle” is an unflattering portrayal of minister Euless “Sonny” Dewey (Duvall) searching for his calling amidst personal torment. It’s also a very human portrait and one guaranteed to start a conversation with anyone you see it with.
It is said that God works in mysterious ways. I also know that he works through the oddest of people, and Sonny is certainly a case in point. As a firebrand preacher in a dusty East Texas town, Sonny received his calling while in grammar school and the movie on more than one occasion reflects on that calling with short flashbacks to his evangelical roots. But while his multicultural, Pentecostal tent revival circuit makes the Texas rounds to poor and minority communities, Sonny’s personal life is falling apart at home (a lesson to all of us in full-time ministry). The preacher’s wife, Jessie, in this case is not Whitney Houston, but an incredibly fragile-looking Farrah Fawcett, who apparently has had enough of Sonny’s dictatorial, scripture memorization ways, has hooked up with a new man and the heir to Sonny’s church throne, Horace (played by Todd Allen who takes a huge step up after his last stunning appearance in the horrid “Pinoccio’s Revenge”).
Sonny makes it pretty obvious throughout the movie why there might have been trouble at home. He’s manipulative and a bit creepy frankly, when it comes to women. He also shows he has a temper by cold cocking Horace in front of his two kids at a softball game with a bat. Of course no self-seeking minister would ever hang around to take credit for such a heinous deed and Sonny goes on the lam to escape prosecution and find out what God has in store for him next. After hearing about a ministry in a tiny Louisiana town vacated by a retiring minister (John Beasley), Sonny anoints and baptizes himself as a new man, the Apostle E.F. Through hard work and some charlatan schmoozing not seen since Elmer Gantry, Sonny gets himself a new church gig and answers another “calling”.
This is one of those movies where you’re going to walk out and ask yourself, “was that sacrilege or a sign that God works through the oddest of folk.” I walked out embracing the latter and although having some misgivings about a minister portrayed as such a creep at times. Especially disturbing is his new relationship in Louisiana with a very gullible and lost Toosie (Miranda Richardson) who Sonny pushes into a relationship even though she’s not legally divorced from her husband yet. One scene where Sonny tries to coax her into letting him inside her home at the end of a date is the creepiest of all the scenes and verifies just what Jessie might have seen in him that encouraged her to leave.
Though slow moving at times, the overt Christianity and some small but powerful performances redeems the pacing difficulties. Beasley is warm and understated as the retired minister who just doesn’t know what to make of this man “God sent to him.” Richardson (“Tom and Viv,” “Patty Hearst,” “Enchanted April”) as the gullible radio station secretary and love-victim of Sonny shines with confused warmth and passion and Billy Bob Thornton (“Sling Blade”) as a wayward soul who is led to redemption by Sonny takes an extremely small acting turn that is poignant and powerful in its literal redemptive qualities. Country music legend June Carter Cash as Sonny’s ever loving and loyal mother is memorable as the only woman in Sonny’s life he can depend on and trust.
The movie however is not without its problems. Little is explained as to why Jessie left her husband for Horace, and Christian moviegoers are going to have a difficult time with Sonny’s overtly “human” qualities and foibles. There are some large plot gaps as well, such as how a low-power Louisiana radio station Sonnie was preaching on, could be heard by Jessie in Texas and why in the world local and state police who had been tracking a murderer for months would wait patiently outside the church for his “sermon on the lam.” However, any movie which shows a 20-minute uninterrupted, unedited sermon of redemption can’t be all bad no matter who is responsible for the oratory.
The language in the film is pretty tame by Hollywood standards, although some good old-fashioned down-home cussing does make its appearance from time to time and many people are going to have a problem with how fallible and sometimes scary this “man of the cloth” is portrayed. Whether “The Apostle” is uplifting, awe-inspiring, or depressingly blasphemous is in the eye of the beholder, but as “Saturday Night Live's” Coffee Talk hostess Linda Richman used to say, “discuss amongst yourselves.”
Year of Release—1997