The Apostle. – Review

The Apostle. – Review – movie reviews

Felicia Feaster

Director: Robert Duvall. Producer: Robert Carliner.

Cinematographer: Barry Markowitz. Music: David Mansfield. October Films.

The Apostle is the kind of film that separates the wheat from the chaff: either one responds to its almost documentary-like evocation of the South and its peculiar religious subculture or one dismisses the film out of hand as embarrassingly, unchicly spiritual. It has become customary in the United States to now categorize entire geographies and lifestyles as irrelevant or uncouth–and The Apostle’s respectful treatment of the backwater regions of the South and its evangelical religion doubly damn it. One only has to contrast the amusing but dignified treatment of a river baptism in The Apostle with John Schlesinger’s depiction of the same event in Midnight Cowboy as a freakish, inbred travesty to sense the unfashionable, iconoclastic perspective Duvall offers in the film he wrote, produced, directed, and stars in.

Molecularly precise in its rendition of Southerners and the subculture of charismatic ministry, The Apostle is something Duvall envisioned 13 years ago … an homage to what he calls “one of the truly American art forms.” The Apostle is a response to a Hollywood which has insistently “caricatured the American preacher” and concurrently portrayed Southerners as the kind of people simple enough to dwell in the primordial darkness of religious fervor and plainly displayed emotion. Boasting an absolutely searing performance by Duvall in a sublime impersonation of a Texas preacher, The Apostle is the culmination of the actor’s longstanding interest in the region and an artistic highpoint in his already estimable career.

When Texas preacher Euliss “Sonny” Dewey (Robert Duvall) has his wife (Farrah Fawcett) and congregation wrested away from him by a clean-cut youth minister, he first brains her lover with a baseball bat in front of his children’s Vacation Bible School (“I think he may be on the road to glory,” Sonny quips with the understated, razor wit of the Southern temperament), and then flees the scene of the crime. In what turns out to be a decidedly spiritual take on the road movie, Sonny lets the Lord determine his course, and winds up in the Louisiana coastal town of Bayou Boutte, where he professes to be reborn, baptizing himself “The Apostle E.F.” Resurrecting a humble country church, E.F. draws a devoted, rag-tag assemblage of disciples with his spiritual and earthly charisma. Recalling Tender Mercies in its story of a man who leaves his past behind for a new life, The Apostle also carries elements of the Western, with its enigmatic outsider who blows into town and changes it irreparably. And just as the motives of Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” are carefully concealed, so are E.F.’s intentions never truly clear. The film leaves us to wonder whether he seeks redemption or evasion, whether he is a true visionary or a Gantryesque huckster.

E.F.’s most compelling quality is his divided nature. Equal parts manipulative smoothie and bone-deep believer, Duvall suggests the charismatic preacher as sexualized, cock-of-the-walk rock star, utterly beguiling his disciples with his magnetic performance style, wit, and silver tongue. Where Slingblade wrapped our identification around a tragic, gentle victim in Gumpian tradition, Robert Duvall’s minister is a less immediately loveable, shape-shifting thing. A Lothario one moment, a snake in the grass the next, E.F. succumbs to the lure of violence and whiskey, and applies his charismatic, evangelical charms toward sexual conquest, even wooing a member of his flock (Miranda Richardson). Though a vastly imperfect man, the E.F. portrayed in Duvall’s wily performance is a vehicle through which spirituality acts; the preacher’s personal flaws are ultimately irrelevant because of the joy and unity he brings to his congregation.

The Apostle’s most harrowing scene–and one which exemplifies the jumble of emotions inspired by this complex film–involves a lonely, awkward young man, Sammy (Walter Goggins, in a delicate, wrenching performance reminiscent of Jon Voight’s acute vulnerability and degraded innocence in Midnight Cowboy), one of the lowly, ordinary small-town people E.F. inspires. The impact the wayward preacher has had on the community is crystallized in a prolonged sermon delivered by E.F. at the height of his inspiration. When one least expects it, the emotional focus of The Apostle shifts to Sammy as he listens to E.F.’s message. His puppy-dog commitment to E.F.’s cause is heartbreaking, his social clumsiness–enhanced by a sad little pompadour and slightly bucktoothed grin–in touching contrast to E.F.’s smooth, confident masculinity. While Sonny demonstrates how religion can move an audience through a human agent, Duvall’s and Goggins’ performances show how acting can seduce a film audience into a secular epiphany.

The Apostle is, for the traditionalism of its subject and milieu, an unusually brave and subversive film. Like Billy Bob Thornton’s similar redemption of the South in Slingblade, The Apostle shares a concern with the dignity of society’s more marginal members, people whom Hollywood and the American public might deem inconsequential. The Apostle is an outlaw film for the respect it gives an institution often dismissed by liberals as ignorant and lowbrow, and often approached by conservatives with a bosom-hugging, proprietary obnoxiousness. Despite occasional lapses into kitsch (seen in an embarrassing musical interlude of a flock of children cleaning E.F.’s Bayou Boutte church), The Apostle’s sincerity and attention to the smallest of details rescue it from forays into the overtly melodramatic. Imbued with a penetrating realism, it precisely and often humorously nails its subculture, from E.F.’s vanity-plated Lincoln Continental, to his good-old-boy, bow-legged shuffle, to the wary deference shown by an older black man–obliged to offer Southern hospitality even in the face of possible danger–when the road-tripping E.F. shows up in his fishing cove incoherent and sweating buckets.

A film about racial community rather than the estrangement thought of as more characteristic of Southern relationships, The Apostle’s treatment of race strives–like Slingblade’s advocacy for its gay characters–to right decades of misperception about the South’s vilification of all difference. Though its thematic connections often feel incomplete, The Apostle suggests it was Sonny’s seminal boyhood presence at his caretaker’s fire-and-brimstone black church which inspired his own flamboyant, sensational preaching. Sonny’s associations with Bayou Boutte’s African Americans gives him an integrity in The Apostle which, even for its feel-good cliches, imbues the film with a gentle optimism about the potential for harmony in the South.

A performance that provocatively distills some of Duvall’s former incarnations, E.F. is the culmination of the actor’s roles as the gung-ho, explosive alpha male of Apocalypse Now, the wayward fathers of Tender Mercies, The Great Santini, and Rambling Rose, and the actor’s continued fascination with understated portraits of masculine motivation. The Apostle also continues Duvall’s longstanding interest in the South as psychological locale, from his film debut in To Kill a Mockingbird to 1972’s Tomorrow. Tender Mercies, The Great Santini, A Family Thing, and Rambling Rose are all evidence of the South’s significance for Duvall, its function as an entry point where masculinity and its performance crumble, revealing fissures in its facade. It’s the tenderness at the heart of even the most gruff, leathery, hardened men that Duvall’s work consistently reveals and that recalls Southern tough-guy Harry Crews’ fiction (he was initially commissioned to write The Apostle’s screenplay) tempered by the sensitivity of Horton Foote (with whom Duvall has maintained a lengthy professional and personal association), imbuing The Apostle with its odd mix of grittiness and grace.

Felicia Feaster is a free-lance writer living in Atlanta, Georgia.

COPYRIGHT 1998 University of California Press

COPYRIGHT 2000 Gale Group