Movie Review: The Apostle (1997)

Scary, heartwarming, or both? __ 9.5/10

You can search far and wide for movies that are authentically American, yet so unique that they defy being categorized. The Apostle would be on a very short list, possibly the only entry. You’re struck by what in the heck was going on in writer-director Robert Duvall’s life to create such a revealing and deep story of the Best of the Bible Belt.

Are these people of faith the best? Is the leader of this Fort Worth, Texas-based, richly funded evangelical church an example of the best of the best? Or are they sinners like everyone else? I’ll answer that question without giving anything away: they’re sinners like everyone else, and Sonny clearly more so. But it isn’t obvious, nor can I pass judgment on the man without fear of contradiction. Indeed, you will find that among freethinking secular persons—such as yours truly—a lively discussion emerges as to whether the preacher man Sonny Dewey, later Apostle E.F., exemplifies destructive or constructive qualities of character.

Directed by Robert Duvall
Written by Robert Duvall

Robert Duvall … Euliss ‘Sonny’ Dewey (Apostle EF)
Farrah Fawcett … Jessie Dewey
Billy Bob Thornton … Troublemaker
June Carter Cash … Mrs. ‘Momma’ Dewey Sr.
Miranda Richardson … Toosie
Todd Allen … Horace
John Beasley … Brother C. Charles Blackwell

Yes, the film is mainly a character study, but inside a religious-context study. And both are held up to the viewer for moral and intellectual consideration. Yet, don’t get the idea The Apostle is a flim-flam man story, even ones so nuanced and insightful as Burt Lancaster’s, The Rainmaker (or, more pointedly, Elmer Gantry) or, more recently, Steve Martin’s Leap of Faith. [There are undoubtedly many other such films about preachers as con artists, but they don’t come to mind immediately.] What Duvall has created stands, as well, as a query into a whole, massive way of life.

For that reason, if one considers oneself a true believer in Jesus Christ, let’s say with all the bells and whistles of original sin, repentance, redemption, worship, and supernatural divine characteristics, then one may find The Apostle hard to take. [Still, I can’t even assert that with great confidence. It seems the behavior attributed to such true believers, including Sonny and his close circle—wife (separated) Jessie (Farrah Fawcett), mother Mrs. Momma Dewey (June Carter Cash), and his best friend Virgil (Emery Hopkins) whom Sonny saved from alcoholism—is evenly distributed: some blindly obedient and offensive, even frightening, some wonderfully benevolent and humanitarian.

Let’s start with the initial scene, where Sonny is out driving with his Momma somewhere in the Texas countryside, and they come upon a scene of a serious automobile accident. [Let’s point out, too, that the church Sonny leads provides him with a recent vintage Lincoln Continental. There’s clearly plenty of money in his Lord’s work.] The police have just arrived, and ambulances have been called. Rather than continue on his way, Sonny parks upstream of the accident and walks stealthily, with his Bible, thru the field to the car containing the victims.

It’s a young couple, the young man is behind the wheel and teetering on the edge of consciousness. Sonny leans in and face-to-face begins to try to save the man’s soul, asking if the man is conscious, but that if he isn’t Sonny will go ahead and preach right there and knows the Lord will help the man hear the message. “Are you saved, will you right now accept the Lord Jesus Christ as your personal savior, will you welcome Jesus into your heart, so that if you should perish this moment you will rise into Heaven and be at one with God Almighty, etc.” Sonny’s soliloquy is truly representative of the Supernatural Christian soul-saving mission. Most of us in the United States will have heard the language time after time… only seldom in such close quarters or on the brink of death.

So not to reveal the remainder of the scene, what have we learned and how do we feel about this man, Sonny? He really isn’t in the way, though soon enough the cops come to chase him off. He means well. It’s clear that Sonny would risk his own life and limb to reach a soul facing eternal damnation. Yet on the other hand, put yourself in the driver’s situation, facing death, “How about a little peace and quiet, leaving me to return to the spirit of the Earth in a final moment of acceptance and bliss?” Who is this dingdong making a special effort to hijack my sacred passage?!

So there I would say, considering that millions of human beings would regard Sonny as a leader and preeminent soldier for Christ, I’m frightened by their insensitivity to the individual who may wish to be left alone. Do they actually believe in a literal Heaven? Hell? The Devil? Wow! I’m thinking, Pod People! No wonder Rush Limbaugh is so popular. But then you follow Sonny back to town, to his home environment, to the neighbors just being regular people living their lives: playing softball, eating ice cream, doing their chores, singing, dancing, being friendly to one another, and so on. Duvall has laid it all out the way it is.

And he’s given us a lot to think about.

As far as Sonny goes, though, the writer has more in store. And I can’t convey the details of the incident that sends Sonny away from his home town. But you realize Sonny is very angry about his wife not wanting to be with him anymore, there are indications he is physically abusive toward her, and she has taken the kids—a boy and girl both grade-school age that Sonny refers to as his “beauties”—and moved in with another man Horace (Todd Allen). Let’s just say Sonny hits the bottle, gets hostile, and creates a scene that winds up hurting someone enough that the police will want to ask him a few questions.

And that starts the life of Sonny II.

He goes on the lam, traveling east, ditching the car, doing some soul searching, and eventually wandering into a new town in Louisiana. He ain’t finished “apreachin’,” neither. Sonny is one of those loyal souls who will never stop believing, and never stop believing he can make a difference in people’s lives. Especially, those coming from the poorest circumstances or the most dire… such as the boy in the auto accident back in Texas. [I’ve spent enough time, myself, in that region of the country to see that many if not most southern church leaders who become affluent in the Lord’s mission are all too happy to do their show for the congregation and rake in the ducats. They’re dishonest.]

Sonny is special. He emulates the One he loves, by ministering to the downtrodden. Blessed are the meek. Blessed are the lowly. He has the good fortune to run into some very special people in the town, including the owner of a local AM radio station and the man’s clerical help, Toosie (Miranda Richardson). A local minister Brother C. Charles Blackwell (John Beasley), retired from preaching because of a few heart attacks, reluctantly comes to work with Sonny—who has now taken the name The Apostle E.F.—in building a new church outside of town and a ministry to go with it.

And this part of Sonny II’s story is the best part of the movie. You will be delighted. And even the most hardened atheist will come to see value and virtue in what E.F. is doing for SunFLOWerthese hopeful, overwhelmingly black, folks. Does he achieve redemption, does the past catch up with him? The movie is a tour de force by Robert Duvall—he was nominated for the Oscar for best actor—and this marvelous, one-of-a-kind movie will open your mind one way or the other.


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