DT Moviehouse Reviews: The Apostle

Time once more for my blog feature, DT Moviehouse Reviews, in which I make my way alphabetically through my 200+ DVD/Blu-Ray collection (you can see the list right here) and decide if each one was worth the money. Here’s my take (and slight rant) on Robert Duvall’s heinously underappreciated The Apostle.

(1997) Directed by Robert Duvall

Written by Robert Duvall

Tagline: The Hardest Soul To Save Was His Own.

What it’s about:

Boisterous Texas Pentacostal minister ‘Sonny’ Dewey (Robert Duvall) learns his wife (Farrah Fawcett) is having an affair with youth minister Horace (Todd Allen). When his wife utilizes the nonprofit bylaws to wrest control of his church away from him, in a fit of drunken rage Sonny confronts the two of them at his kids’ Little League game and strikes Horace with a bat, putting him into a coma (from which he later dies). Sonny drives his car into the river, tosses away his ID, and goes on the lam. Praying for understanding and direction, he flees to Louisiana where he baptizes himself in the Mississippi River as ‘The Apostle E.F.’ and sets out with a local reverend named Blackwell (the wonderful John Beasley) to resurrect a one room country church.

Why I bought it:

The best acting performance of 1997 definitely wasn’t Jack Nicholson as himself in ‘As Good As It Gets.’ It was Robert Duvall as The Apostle E.F. in this movie.

We’re talking about one of the greatest screen actors of the past five decades, at the top of his game, in a passionate, transformative performance. Duvall is a consistently great actor. At a time when DeNiro and Nicholson and Pacino had all fallen back on their laurels to play themselves (or the public’s conception of them) time and time again, Duvall came out with The Apostle and it was AMAZING.

Best Actor….for As Good As It Gets?? Hocus Pocus…

I watched this Academy Awards presentation, and I watched him lose to Nicholson, and I thought W-T-F? I also saw (and this is just me projecting my own emotions – I have no idea what Duvall was really thinking) in Robert Duvall’s eyes the entire rest of the night, just this intense wound. Now, he was gracious as all get out, and smiled and didn’t pitch a fit. I remember when they traipsed out all the past Best Actor winners for a big onstage photo op he was there (for Tender Mercies back in the 80’s – when he first conceived of and unsuccessfully pitched ‘The Apostle’ to producers), smiling, but I felt like it was a hollow smile, like he’d really given his all and just got the cold shoulder for it.  Man, I just really felt for the guy that night. I think it might’ve been the last AA show I went out of my way to watch. I can’t really say I was jaded at the time, but I just felt so intensely disappointed for the man, that the fun of watching the Oscars was kinda wiped out for me. Nicholson??? For As Good As It Gets???And now, rewatching The Apostle, I revisited that same emotional reaction, because Duvall’s performance is just as good as it was in ’97. And I got to thinking, why did The Apostle get the John Carter treatment? It made only $40,000 dollars opening weekend. Forty THOUSAND dollars!

Of course, as it caught on with church groups, it wound up making twenty million, four times its estimated budget (according to imdb), but still.

I remember the night I went to see this movie. I was excited as all get out for it because one of my film school teachers had showed us one of the opening scenes and it just blew me away.

In the scene, Sonny and his mother (June Carter Cash) are driving along and come across a car wreck out on a country road. The police are all over the place, but the ambulance hasn’t arrived yet. One car is on the road and a couple are sitting on the bumper, having sustained minor injuries, but the second car has apparently ploughed into a field and is just twisted all up.

Sonny pulls the car over, grabs his bible, and high tails it out to the wreck. He pokes his head inside and sees a young couple. The boy is pushed up against the steering wheel, blood trickling from his scalp and nose, very stiff, but wide-eyed, as though he might be paralyzed. In the passenger seat is a young girl, his wife or girlfriend, and she’s unconscious, bleeding.

Sonny reaches in and takes the girl’s hand and puts it on the boy’s arm. He proceeds to ask the boy if he’s ready for his soul to depart, and asks him to accept Jesus Christ as his personal savior. The boy begins to cry, and answers in the affirmative.

At this point one of the state troopers comes up and tries to get Sonny to move on. Sonny waves the cop off, even kicks him back at one point, until he finishes his benediction over this couple. The boy manages a weak ‘thank you.’

When Sonny finally disengages, the cop says;

“I ‘spose you think you really done somethin’ here.”

“I know I did,” answers Sonny. “Let me tell you something. I’d rather die today and go to heaven, then live to be a hundred and go to hell.”

He then goes back to his mother and as they pull away, they pray and sing for the couple’s recovery. Under the soulful impromptu a capello strains of June Carter Cash as she sings ‘The Far Banks of Jordan,’ we cut back to the wreck, and see the girl’s fingers tighten on the boy’s arm.

I found this to be a deeply spiritual scene, very moving. I hadn’t seen a preacher positively portrayed in a film in years, and here was an obviously selfless act. Sonny doesn’t slip a business card into the kid’s shirt pocket or tell the cops to call his church or something. He plies his real trade, which is the business of saving souls, and moves on.

Well, I went to see The Apostle late one night after work along with three other people. An elderly African American man, a middle aged white woman, and an old white lady.

That is, that was who I saw the movie with. That was the entirety of the audience. And twenty two year old me (we all enjoyed it immensely).

And when I was directed to the theater by the usher, they had already changed the marquee (I think to Titanic, which I still haven’t seen), so I had to ask if it was the right picture.

Needless to say, I was astounded by the movie that enfolded. It was almost like watching an ethnographic documentary.

Duvall’s direction is, like the best kind, non-invasive. There’s not a bunch of Hollywood smash cuts and tricks to remind you you’re watching a movie (which so many film directors resort to these days). The sermons and the preaching are long takes and long to medium shots, and the cast is a mix of fantastic professional character actors (James Gammon, John Beasely, country singer Billy Joe Shaver) with real southerners, ministers, thunderous, uplifting gospel choirs, and quirky everyday folks (the two bickering African American ladies in Sonny’s fledgling congregation are standouts, as are Jack Dial, an Arkansas furniture store owner who plays the local radio DJ that lets Sonny evangelize on his station). This enhances the emotional impact of the drama to the nth degree.

And what’s even more daring is the subject matter. Sonny is not wholly good, but he’s not wholly bad either. He’s definitely the real deal when it comes to preaching. This is shown early on in the aforementioned car wreck scene, and in flashbacks to his childhood, where he is first exposed to the Southern African American style of preaching as a boy with his (I presume) nanny. We later see him at about the age of ten or eleven up in front of an all black congregation himself roaring in his squeaky voice at adults about sanctification.

But he admits to his wife when confronted with the end of their marriage that he has always had a wandering eye, and he is definitely prideful, strutting in an ice cream suit and sunglasses before the big congregation his wife has taken away from him (there’s a great bit of dialogue after that scene where one of his supporters says, “They sure ain’t gonna forget you droppin’ that fifty dollar bill in the collection box.” To which Sonny replies, “It was a hundred dollar bill.”) and flat out refusing to consider taking the reins of another (“This is MY church”).

And of course his dark side comes right to the fore when he visits his son’s Little League game drunk and proceeds to bust his wife’s paramour across the face with his boy’s own bat (“That’s one for the road, Rodney. One for the road.”), then tries to drag her ‘home’ by her hair.

Hollywood and fiction in general has treated us to negative portrayals of churchgoers and corrupt preachers since Elmer Gantry, but where The Apostle veers off and is refreshingly original, is that Sonny, despite all he’s done, is still basically a good man. His personal life is a complete shambles due to his own weaknesses, but he is still no con artist. He does believe in God, and he genuinely does care about peoples’ souls. After he learns of Horace’s condition, he prays for his recovery.

The night before his attack on Horace, he paces his bedroom shouting to the ceiling of his mother’s house at the top of his lungs in a one sided, deeply personal conversation with God which on its surface is humorous, but really makes his devotion and faith shine. God is not some concept to him, some ideal he pays lip service to get people through the doors of his church. He has a personal relationship with the Lord, and by personal I mean it is less of a reverential deference one might imagine giving say, the President, as it is a rapport with a good friend (“I always called you Jesus, you always called me Sonny. I love you, Lord. But I’m mad you. I am MAD AT YOU!”). Sonny’s faith is very real.

Does this make him a hypocrite? To some degree, yes of course. But strive as they might, all people are hypocrites about something. They are human, and they make mistakes.

Which I think, brings me to the reason The Apostle got the shaft.

It’s because it doesn’t feed into the popular conception of Christian ministers as being political-minded, holier than thou, money grubbing homophobes bent on changing the way ‘the rest of us’ (whatever that means) live our lives.

And that is indeed a very popular conception. I see it in the deliberately antagonistic (they assure people its just irreverent), baiting posts of some of my fellow professionals and friends on Facebook every day. I see it in movies and TV and fiction I read. Where does this desperate need to take from people something that gives them joy and peace come from? I think much of it stems from personal issues. I know for instance, I intensely dislike team sports because of my own experiences in middle school, but I recognize that many people enjoy them a lot and take great pleasure and comaradery from them. It’s my own hangup, not a failing of sports fans.

 I recently re-watched an old episode of Saturday Night Live, which Joe Pesci hosted. It was the week after the infamous show where the Irish pop singer Sinead O’Connor tore a picture of Pope John Paul II in half in protest against the Catholic Church’s views on abortion and birth control. Pesci opened his monologue by taping what he said was the same photograph back together and saying, in his best wiseguy mode, that had he been there, he ‘would’ve given her such a smack.’

I was pretty chagrined, but the audience (and this was a New York City audience!) erupted into cheers and applause.

I couldn’t help thinking how the national consciousness and our attitudes towards religion have changed in the intervening years.

Of course Pesci’s comments were reprehensible, but they were apparently encouraged by the approving audience. But this was the late 80’s, before the Catholic abuse scandal broke, and I really trace the changing of the national tide to that ultimate betrayal of trust.

What most concerns me nowadays (and here’s where the brief rant begins) , is that those that consider themselves educated, tolerant, and liberal-minded suddenly become rabid hypocrites when the subject of belief in God comes up. Seriously. I mean Westboro Baptist style antagonistic. It’s not OK to really and truly express belief in God anymore. Among the artistic community especially, it’s folksy and stupid, and should be a practice confined to dumb yokels, not intelligent, urbane people.

And I really think this is why The Apostle initially failed (and why Duvall was criminally ignored). It’s not popular to think of devout Christians as being capable of good. They’re all backwards hate mongerers and racist Republicans, right? Well, no. No they’re not. No more than every atheist is a communist monster without a moral compass. The definition of true tolerance towards our fellow human beings is not ‘I love and respect everybody so long as they believe what I believe.’ Yes, some deists are unfortunately guilty of this, but so are an increasing number of atheists.

If The Apostle were called The Shaman, and was an amazingly accurate, positive, and compelling portrayal of say, a Papua holy man in a remote village in the back country of New Guinea preaching his animist beliefs, wouldn’t most people see it as a fascinating time capsule, a worthy portrait of a unique and alien (to most of us) way of life? And wouldn’t whichever actor lost himself in such a role be deserving of the highest praise, if he successfully made the audience empathize with a character so entirely outside their own experience?

Well, that’s exactly what The Apostle is, and that’s exactly what Robert Duvall did. And if you haven’t seen it because holy rollers are nuts and belief in God is as stupid and irrational as belief in Santa Claus (but I’ll bet you’ve seen Bad Santa or The Santa Clause or one of the Rankin and Bass specials), then you missed out. And you’re not as tolerant as you think you are.

The philosophy of The Apostle is flat-out stated in a scene where Sonny observes a congregation of Cajun bayou boats being blessed by a Catholic priest.

“You do it your way, I do it mine, but we get it done, don’t we?”

That I can get behind.

OK, end rant.

The Apostle, besides being the journey of Sonny from sin to redemption, is an enthralling showcase of a vibrant and interesting American subculture, as diverse and beautiful as any. Prior to Sonny’s fall there is a sequence in which we see him in attendance at several different ministry events, from tent revivals to Holiness worship, to a mesmerizing Promisekeepers type event where hundreds of well dressed black men pump their fists in unison and respond JE-SUS again and again in one voice to the ministers’ prompts. The preachers in these scenes are actual Pentacostal clergymen, and they vary wildly in their styles and vie with each other in terms of exuberance, and Duvall steps in and amazingly holds his own.

Sonny’s sermon scenes are really a treat to behold, intense, sometimes funny, often heartfelt, always entirely believable. He’s like a man with Tourette’s who spits out glory and praise instead of profanity. The man lives always with God in mind.

Duvall went far out on a limb, financing this movie personally when producers told him they’d rather see the same old corruption of a two faced minister portrayed than the redemption of a realistically flawed human being. It’s a true labor of love in every sense of the word.

And though Duvall’s shadow is hard to get out from under, the rest of the cast, even the non-actors, hold their own, down to the Cajun kid who plays the accordion in church, and the old man with the trumpet. The lovely Miranda Richardson is pleasant as a would be (but ultimately doomed to fail) love interest.

Sonny is a believable human being, warts and all, something you don’t see very much in the movies. It’s refreshing to see such a demonized subculture get a fair and positive treatment.

Best bit of dialogue:

This is very hard to pick. Much of the sermonizing is extemporaneous. Duvall said he took a lot of notes listening to other preachers, and particularly in the penultimate sermon before the Louisiana State Police come to haul Sonny off to jail, the behind the scenes extras state that there was a three camera set up that just sat back and ran for hours as Duvall preached. He said he knew the points he wanted to make at each part in the story, but he allowed himself to work his way to them naturally.

As a result, picking good lines in The Apostle is like picking the gems from Popeye’s speech. And I mean that in the best way. Jack Mercer, the voice of the famous cartoon sailor, was an extremely talented, hilarious man, who peppered Popeye’s dialogue with wonderful blink and you’ll miss it extemporaneous asides, and The Apostle is like that, very naturalistic, so lulling and organic that you’ll miss the gold. As I watched it, I actually jotted a few down that I haven’t already mentiond.

“The eleventh commandment thou shalt not shout….doth not exist.”

“Now I know this church ain’t much….”

“Ain’t much? Why I’d fight ten men for it!”

“Do you wanna be on the Devil’s hit list? Then you better get on Jesus’ mailing list.”

“[on hard work] I quit school ‘cause I didn’t like recess.”

“[with his arrest pending, as he kneels in front of the little church with a tearful young mechanic played with understated believability by The Shield’s Walton Scoggins] St. Paul says any man who accepts Christ as his savior is a saint. You’re a saint, Sammy. You’re goin’ to heaven. I’m goin’ to jail, you’re goin’ to heaven.”

Best scene:

Well as I said, the car wreck scene is what drew me into this movie, but midway through there is a beautiful sequence involving Sonny and a character credited as The Troublemaker (Billy Bob Thornton). Thornton arrives one night at Sonny’s little multiracial One Way Road To Heaven church looking to start something, and when Sonny invites him outside, he states he ‘wouldn’t want to sit around with a buncha niggers,’ which induces Sonny to beat the crap out of him and tell him not to come back.

Later, the church has a picnic out front and Thornton returns with a couple of his yokel buddies and a bulldozer (with a revolver prominently holstered in the cab). He declares he’s going to knock down the church.

Sonny responds by opening his bible and laying it on the grass in front of the vehicle.

“If you wanna knock down my church you’re gonna have to roll over that holy book and brother, if you do that, I wouldn’t wanna be sittin’ where you’re sittin.’”

Thornton orders one of his cronies to pick up the book and the guy shakes his head and leaves.

He gets down himself and declares his intent to do it.

Sonny replies, speaking to his gathered congregants;

“Nobody can move that book.”

They repeat it four times, and Thornton shakes his head and says;

“I can move it as quick as you can.”

And he kneels down to do it. Sonny slips down beside him and puts a gentle arm on his shoulder.

“No sir. Nobody. Nobody moves it. Nobody. I know why you came here. You didn’t come here to knock my church down, did you? You came for another reason, didn’t you?”

“No, I came to knock your church down.”

“No sir.”

“Yes sir, I did.”

“Well you ain’t gonna knock it down. I want you to know that.”

Thornton pauses and glances over his shoulder.

“I didn’t come to knock your church down.”

“Yes sir. I know. I know. That’s why I’m kneeling with you. I’ll pray with you if you want me to. I’ll even cry. I’ll do anything you want me to do with you…’cause I know you’re a good man. I know it. Now if you reach out, the Lord will accept you here today. If you reach out, He’ll accept you here forever more. He will love you forever, even as we in this church love you now. Forever more. Do I hear somebody say “Amen”?

The parishoners shout “Amen!”

Thornton is crying by this point, and he whispers,

“I feel embarrassed.”

“You don’t have to feel embarrassed.  I was a worse sinner than you were in my time. I was a worse sinner than you were. Go ahead, brother, cry. I’ll cry with you. I’ll cry with you. Somebody say, “the Holy Ghost is here right now.””

“The Holy Ghost is here right now!”

The crowd chants this again and again, until one of the women starts singing ‘Victory Is Mine,’ and Sonny and Thornton rise to their feet together.

It’s just a wonderfully moving scene of brotherhood and acceptance.

Would I buy it again? Yes.

NEXT IN THE QUEUE:  At The Circus

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