The Gospel Truth

Answered prayers: Robert Duvall as "The Apostle E.F." in The Apostle.Photo: Van Redin/October Films

In The Apostle, Euliss “Sonny” Dewey (Robert Duvall), a Pentecostal preacher in rural Texas, is driving along the highway with his elderly mother when he comes across a gruesome multi-car accident. For Sonny, it’s good times – he gets to work. Pulling over, he hops out of his car, Bible in hand; skips past the highway patrol; and sticks his head into the window of one of the wrecked automobiles. The driver, a teenage boy, is stunned and bloody, and so is the girl sitting next to him. But Sonny tells them that God loves them, that they have to take Jesus into their lives so they can be saved. “There are angels, angels right here in this automobile,” he insists, badgering the boy, who stares before him with dead eyes. Duvall keeps his voice low, but Sonny’s intrusion is meant to be an outrage: These two sinners need an ambulance. Yet as the boy stirs and begins to weep, Duvall half convinces us that the teenagers may need Jesus too. The Apostle (which played a week in December to qualify for the Oscars and is opening again at the end of January) is the best movie ever made about a man of God – which is to say, the most honest and morally the most ambiguous. Sonny is egotistical and manipulative; a con artist, a brawler, a womanizer; a man who falls into bathos as easily as a soldier falls into erotic reverie. Yet he’s a kind of genius, too, a gifted, sometimes inspired preacher who rounds up isolated and demoralized people and forges them into a community. Sonny is a warrior against forlornness.

Duvall wrote and directed the picture himself, using some of his own money when no one in Hollywood was much interested in bankrolling him. In truth, his past efforts as a director, We’re Not the Jet Set and Angelo, My Love, would not have sent me reaching for my checkbook, either. Nor can I say that I’ve always been a fan of his acting. I see what other people admire – the clarifying hardness and power, the edge of mockery, the muscular grip on reality. You certainly can’t catch Duvall in false moments. But you also don’t catch him relaxing and giving the audience a good time. It’s not always easy to look at his mean slit eyes and evil grin, and I think actors who bellow are a pain in the neck, even when they’re meant to be playing blowhards. Duvall can be dry and overbearing, almost priggish, as if he thought the mere absence of charm were a virtue in itself.

But in The Apostle, he’s completely on top of what he’s doing. Sonny bellows, but with professional skill, in the rhythmic, incantatory style that he has copied from the black preachers he heard as a boy. He’s overbearing, all right – devastating as he zeroes in on whatever person is before him. Duvall makes him fast, very fast, a shrewd and enterprising man, spry as a water bug, who senses what people want and adjusts instantly. This noisy super-salesman for God – the world’s greatest shouter, a tent-revival spellbinder – is capable of modulating his voice to a whisper when he needs to get intimate with someone. At times, the performance has an almost effervescent gaiety. Now in his middle sixties, Duvall has never seemed to enjoy himself so much. There’s a little hop of anticipation in Sonny’s step; he rushes out of his house in the morning, thrilled with himself, thrilled to be doing God’s work, chattering and revving himself up – he’s scoring a touchdown for the Lord. Sonny pulls depressed people out of their torpor; he makes the quest for Jesus about the most exciting adventure anyone ever heard of. Even when he’s at his most outrageously self-serving, he’s sure he’s doing God’s work, and Duvall gives him an edge of bravado and merriment. He’s almost daring God not to admire Sonny’s effectiveness.

And Duvall has picked up speed as a director, too. Right after the opening, there’s a montage of Sonny preaching to different congregations that turns into a kind of musical revue. In one sequence, Sonny rushes back and forth across the stage and then hands the microphone off to different preachers, who, like star tap dancers, surge forward one at a time and do their own supercharged riffs; in another, he’s working with a Hispanic woman who’s having a glory fit, and he translates her words and moves with her as they march in triumph together through the valley of the shadow of death. Hallelujah! The Apostle openly acknowledges that the heat and excitement produced by charismatic showmanship are a major part of Pentecostal evangelism; it acknowledges as well how much black speech rhythms dominate the style of the religion. Like Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown, it is one of the new movies in which whites and blacks do something together and race is not much of an issue. White people think Sonny sounds black, and they like his style; black people accept him as a man with a gift. Duvall puts some of the black church women he’s met in the South into the picture; they are exalted people with the strangeness of those lost in a dream of God.

At night, on the road, Sonny has a vision: His wife (Farrah Fawcett, who is perfectly good) is sleeping with a handsome young minister. He returns home in a drunken rage, and, with half the town watching, takes a baseball bat to the minister’s head. Sonny has to disappear fast – in any case, there’s nothing holding him to the town, since his wife has already persuaded his church to throw him out as pastor. After deep-sixing his car, his past, his identity, he hits the road and emerges as a newborn itinerant man of God, a preacher without a congregation. The movie slows down and Duvall opens himself to the softer beauties of the southern landscape – for a while, The Apostle becomes a middle-aged Huckleberry Finn. Sonny finally settles into a bedraggled but pleasant Louisiana town called Bayou Boutte, where, identifying himself as “E.F., The Apostle,” he joins forces with a retired black minister and builds a congregation from the ground up.

This is Sonny’s period of grace – the time of his time. Committing an evil act and then escaping from it delivers him into goodness. He’s not so much a hypocrite as a man perfectly able to re-create himself without losing a step. The last third of The Apostle is not as exciting as the rest, and the movie sags a bit as Duvall romances Miranda Richardson, who plays a genteel southern lady both attracted to and repelled by the dynamic preacher. Still, The Apostle gets at something authentic and challenging – the insistent goodness of a man never free of dishonesty or sin. Compared with this movie, films like Elmer Gantry that “expose” the evangelist figure as a phony seem shallow and beside the point. For whatever judgment you might make of Sonny, he certainly delivers the goods. And so does Robert Duvall, who has made a movie devoid of both illusion and cynicism. In his own life, Sonny is too much a sinner simply to possess God. He remains an eternal suppliant, a candidate for blessedness, and therefore, despite everything, a hero.

The Gospel Truth