The Apostle (1997)

Robert Duvall


Written by Robert Duvall. 134 minutes. PG-13. Starring Robert Duvall, Farrah Fawcett, June Carter Cash, and Billy Bob Thornton.

Forty years a preacher, an apostle full of brimstone and sweet Jesus, and Euliss “Sonny” Dewey still doesn’t get it, specifically the nature of the “Holy Ghost power” he has relished and exalted his whole long life. In this commitment he is entirely sincere and not so much wrong as grievously constricted, so much so that he exalts means over ends, the vessel for the substance therein. The rub is that the means and the vessel, as he understands it, is Sonny himself, God’s own special fair-haired boy. Nonetheless, in his commitment to saving souls, Sonny is ferocious, rambunctious, and even flamboyant, the successful pastor of a large and prosperous Ft. Worth congregation.

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He also also travels the revival circuit, in a variety of tag-team evangelism, with other preaching masters (viewers see some of the tradition’s noted living practitioners; writer, director and star Robert Duvall himself believes that Holiness preaching is a distinctly, and much neglected, American art form). It is a remarkable portrait in one the great religious films ever made—a wrenching and amply surprising telling of an undreamed route to achieving intimacy with God.

Just how extraordinary (and problematic) Sonny is Duvall shows in the long opening sequence. Sonny and his aging mother (June Carter Cash) come upon a rural auto accident in which one car sits far off in a weedy field. Sonny skirts the police perimeter to minister to a badly injured young couple, the woman unconscious and the husband immobile and barely awake. He right off sets about saving the man’s soul, and it is a bravura performance by Sonny (and by Duvall as Sonny). Even though a police officer eventually tells Sonny to leave, Sonny persists and then witnesses to the policeman. Throughout Sonny is passionately sincere, and everything he says makes sense within the tenets of his evangelical fundamentalism. Still, Duvall drops a couple of clues that not all is well with the servanthood of Sonny. First off, when Sonny at last returns to his waiting mother, he proudly crows that “we made news in heaven today,” which rather mistakes the agency for whatever goodness happened with the injured husband. And not long after, as Sonny heads off to three weeks on the revival circuit, director Duvall tellingly cuts for the first of several times to the big Chrysler’s vanity license plate, “SONNY,” which rather tells the whole story (13:26).

Exactly how much this shot offers a narrative portent soon comes blazingly clear. While out on the revival circuit, the realization suddenly dawns on Sonny that his comely wife Jessie (Farrah Fawcett) has been consorting with the church’s youth minister. He speeds homeward and considers killing the pair with the handgun he keeps in his Chrysler’s glove compartment; instead, he opts for terror, throwing a baseball through the window where the pair sleep. He tries reconciliation with Jessie, but the pistol Sonny has laid on the coffee table rather skews the conversation, and it soon becomes that the skittish Jessie has a history physical violence from Sonny. When Sonny threatens to raise the issue with church, Jessie cites his own history of womanizing. This Sonny dismisses as a kind of occupational hazard from the emotional intensity of the revival circuit. Soon deposed from his pulpit Sonny takes to drink, and then in a drunken stupor in front of his children, he dispatches the youth minister with a baseball bat. So much for suffering patiently with the Lord.

Which sends Sonny on the run, a latter-day Cain, fugitive and alone. Not even Sonny can rationalize the magnitude of his crimes and his loss family and status, and this dire reality turns him upside down. For a host of reasons Sonny essentially sets about “shriving” himself of all that he was to become a different sort of creature. First off, for reasons more practical than religious, he sinks that fancy Chrysler and its vanity plate in a rural pond. Duvall the director again focuses on the plate as it sinks below the surface, an ample foreshadowing the new baptism of being that Sonny will undertake (36:23). And a man who perpetually scurried everywhere moves ever more slowly finally ending up at dead stop in a poor man’s pup tent to fast and pray, ultimately re-baptizing himself the “Apostle EF.”

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This new apostle is about as different from the old Sonny as could be, for Sonny finally seems at last to understand the purposes of the gospel he has so fervently preached, and this new comprehension seems to have little to do with his former fair-haired status as Jesus’ special boy (see Sonny’s loud dispute with God: “It’s always been you and me, Jesus” {HL 25:33-26:55}}. In a small Louisiana town. with the help of a semi-retired black minister (John Beaseley), the Apostle gets to work, rebuilding a broken-down rural church, and instead of the Chrysler, he now drives a clunky rehabbed church bus. Gone too are the white suits and pink ties, replaced by a modest back suit and skinny tie.

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Threats, bravado, and discord disappear as well, and a new quieter Sonny gently settles disputes between church ladies, and to support himself and the church, he repairs cars, just as he tries to fix people, including his hapless friend Sam (Walton Goggins), on whose couch he sleeps. And now when Sonny runs it is not in behalf of his own capacious ego but to remain anonymous after dropping off baskets of food on the doorsteps of the poor. Much to his credit, and to keep his film credible, director Duvall simply details all of this without melodrama or sentiment, inviting the viewer to note the differences. Indeed, remarkably, Sonny now keeps his left hand from knowing the work of the right.

This all comes amply clear when one solitary evening Sonny leans on the hood of a borrowed car before his humble little church and quietly thanks God {1:15:50-1:16:45}. Sonny has come a long way from the buzz and glitz of Ft. Worth and the revival circuit and, as well, from murder, but Sonny knows he has arrived at a “true” place. And things do not change, though Sonny’s fortunes only drastically worsen, as a post-credit postscript shows. Sonny’s journey has been one the hardest of all, from regard for self to reverence for the very ”least of these.”

written by Roy Anker