The Apostle is a good and important movie

points on 10-point scale Robert Duvall recreates himself as The Apostle.Based on Steve Rhodes’ review of The Apostle, published on my web sites, I surmised that it might be the best movie since Sling Blade. It is a good and important movie, but it’s not that good. Neither is it as good, in my opinion, as its other antecedent in which Robert Duvall also starred, Tender Mercies.

The Apostle tells the story of a man (“Sonny,” played by Duvall, who also wrote and directed this extraordinary film) who, as a little boy, was dragged to preaching services in Southern holiness churches and tent meetings and grew up to be one of those preachers. Unlike virtually every other treatment of this subject since Sinclair Lewis’ all-time cheap shot Elmer Gantry, Duvall understands his characters and fleshes them out not only with foibles but as heroes in their own right. Yes, Sonny killed a man, and he’s done his share of womanizing and giving in to temptation, but that doesn’t make his chief role in life that of hypocrite, Duvall wants us to see. Hypocrisy is not even a major topic of this film, much less its focus.

And although the complexity of human character and the sovereignty of sin even where Christ has been declared King is worth considering, it’s here that Duvall’s message fails to convince and is thereby flawed, I think. Especially in this era when the nation’s number one role model goes to church Sunday mornings and drops his trousers for anyone he can seduce—or be seduced by—the rest of the week (if we can believe Time magazine and other often-reliable testimonies) we come away from The Apostle haunted by a contradiction that doesn’t compute.

But like the point Duvall is promoting itself, Sonny’s true religion, his devotion to the Gospel, to telling others of their need of salvation, and to charitable works, is the message here, not his foibles. His murderous deed, which could be explained as an unpremeditated byproduct of excessive passion—virtually an accident—, could be said to literarily enhance his story. I remember sitting in the car outside my house wondering what reasons were sufficient to prevent me from shooting my then-wife and her lover inside, and concluding that wanting my children not to be orphans was enough. Having slain someone in a sense comparable to King David’s having had Uriah the Hittite slain, Sonny’s quest to build a new church and save more souls, as acts of contrition and repentance, gives those deeds an element of myth.

I can understand Sonny’s wrath and its dire consequences, but his declaration of independence from his marriage and by extension his family by attempting to bed without so much as feeling guilty the first woman he dates while on the lam is so clearly outside the parameters of Christian orthodoxy that it flaws this story. Even if he were portrayed as a Pentecostal rather than a Holiness minister, this would go down a little easier, though not much. Though they’re closely related, Pentecostals are defined by the events of the Christian life and their preaching is all about new and deeper, but ultimately transient, experiences. Holiness preaching, on the other hand, emphasizes a lifestyle of separation from the flesh, the world, and the devil, making the paradox here too difficult.

Nevertheless, this is the most authentic movie ever made dramatizing this truly American phenomenon of spirituality induced through preaching. Sonny is quintessentially American when he rebaptizes and ordains himself an Apostle, whatever that means to him. There is no hierarchy, no power structure, no “chain of accountability” except those in his own heart and head; this is carrying the American Revolt against monarchy to its ultimate conclusion. Others have observed that it’s no accident that Puritan Congregationalism grew up at the same time as the anti-monarchist Republicanism of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, followed by its even less structured Baptist offshoot and the more anarchistic forms of Protestantism that include the self-ordained “apostles” populating the American landscape. This is no minor blip on our collective sociological monitor; it’s a major, long-lived phenomenon that touches a major segment of the American population.

For that reason, there should be movies and other literature treating it, and as an example of that, Robert Duvall has given us an excellent motion picture. His performance is Oscar-worthy, and I’d be rooting for him, but after Billy Bob Thornton won for a character from the same milieu last year, I think he has less of a chance than the iceberg in Titanic. Farrah Fawcett is also good as his wife, and June Carter Cash delights as his mother (though I first thought she was the wife and Fawcett was their daughter).

The Apostle, though less than perfect, is still 'way above average and one to see.


© 1998 Jon Kennedy