Apostle, The (1997)
★★ / ★★★★
Sonny (Robert Duvall) is a Pentecostal preacher who had recently caught his wife, Jessie (Farrah Fawcett), having an affair with Horace (Todd Allen), a youth minister. During a softball game, Sonny comes to take his children but Horace approaches Sonny to say he is sorry that Sonny had to find out about the adultery. Sonny, consumed with rage, takes a bat, swings it to Horace’s head, and the man is unconscious. The preacher runs away before the police arrives. Circumstances and kind strangers lead Sonny to Louisiana where he plans to start a new church.
I understand that “The Apostle,” written and directed by Robert Duvall, is supposed to be a story of a person seeking redemption from succumbing to rage and putting a man into a coma, but it ultimately feels like attending church. It is like enduring a punishment at times. There are far too many dispensable scenes where Sonny delivers very enthusiastic speeches about the word of God and how His word can ameliorate suffering and prejudices when one or two extended but powerful speeches is more than enough.
I wanted to know more about people who befriend Sonny in his time of need. Given that the film is a story of attaining redemption through learning to connect with others, emphasis should have been placed on the people who help him get there. For instance, there is Blackwell (John Beasley), a retired preacher, who takes Sonny to an abandoned building and helps him realize that his goals are closer than he thinks. Elmo (Rick Dial), a local radio station owner, gives Sonny a voice without having to show his face–critical because he is on the run from the cops. Finally, there is Toosie (Miranda Richardson), a secretary in the radio station, who serves as Sonny’s new love interest. She is a symbol of the fact that Sonny’s heartache and anger toward his wife can heal over time and with the right mindset.
It is most disappointing that the screenplay does not do much with the three supporting characters. Not enough time is spent on each of them because speeches take precedence over meaningful character development. When the camera is on them, they smile and deliver knowing or caring glances. They do not feel like real people. Sure, they function as agents that will inspire a change in Sonny but they do not have to be perfect. I wanted to know about their flaws and why they are drawn to helping a complete stranger, reasons that go beyond his title and piety.
Duvall’s electric performance keeps the movie somewhat afloat. There is a lot of yelling inside the church, but what I found most captivating are of his character’s quieter moments. I loved the first scene when he and his mother (June Carter Cash) decide to stop their car after seeing a wreckage in the middle of the road. Sonny steps out of the vehicle, looks for the victims of the car crash, and provides comfort and a prayer for the young man who is minutes away from death. The scene shows that even though Sonny is far from perfect, he is capable of a lot of goodness.
“The Apostle” only works as a showcase for Duvall’s sublime acting. However, as a movie that supposedly uses paradoxes to unearth or unveil our humanity through our good and bad actions as individuals as well as our ability to relate and connect with others, it lacks genuine insight. It is neither entertaining nor particularly moving.