Ever since the mid ‘80s, Robert Duvall had wanted to produce The Apostle. However, considering every Hollywood studio had declined to take a chance on such an unconventional picture, the film did not adorn the theatres until 1997—when Duvall dug into his own pocket to finance the project.
Writer, director, and star, Robert Duvall, has created a rare and exceptional character study of a truly humble, yet at times troubled, human-being. With Duvall’s energetic sermons and documentary-like direction, The Apostle cradles the ambiance of Say Amen, Somebody; all the while, it grasps its unadulterated originality with a darn-good dose of drama.
The film begins in 1939, as we watch a young Texan boy sit and listen to the Pentecostal praises of The Father, The Son, and The Holy Ghost. Fast-forward nearly six decades later and we discover the same young boy – now an aging preacher – named Euliss Dewey (Robert Duvall)—whom everyone calls “Sonny.” Sonny typically spends every waking hour at the mercy of the Lord. Be it leading revivals throughout the Deep South, or cooking up some Southern Gospel gusto for his very own Texan congregation, Sonny takes great pride in his work as an Evangelist.
Because Sonny spends so much time serving the Lord and spreading His Word, his wife Jessie (Farrah Fawcett) justifies her decision to commit adultery with a much younger minister of the faith named Horace (Todd Allen). Sonny becomes aware of the affair, but before he can act on this knowledge, Jessie finds a loophole in the church’s regulations and deprives him of both his church and his job. In a state of bitter rage, Sonny clubs Horace in the head with a baseball bat—leaving his wife’s new man comatose. After attacking Horace, Sonny fakes his death, and flees to wherever the Lord chooses to lead him.
Following a self-baptism and a change of name from Sonny to “The Apostle E.F.,” the distraught preacher arrives in the little town of Bayou Boutte, Louisiana. There, he meets a retired minister named C. Charles Blackwell (John Beasley), who decides to help “The Apostle” start a new church. Together, the two men strive to spread the Christian faith and the power of prayer. As for “The Apostle,” he is on a personal Odyssey for atonement, absolution, and deliverance.
In a sequence early on in the film, Sonny speaks to a severely injured man who – moments beforehand – was in a terrible car crash. Sonny asks the man if he is ready to accept Jesus as his personal Lord and Savior. In what could be the man’s final moments, he sheds a tear and nods. This sequence depicts not only the authenticity of Sonny’s devotion to the Gospels, but also his confidence in the power of touching people through prayer. It also sets the stage for Sonny’s personal quest to attain redemption and his enduring effort to sermonize the story of Jesus to any soul willing to listen.
Despite his one disastrous fault, we see Sonny as a good man. Even with his own psychosomatic demons, he values humility and togetherness and elects to bring peace to the hearts of many. Sonny possesses such a lively spirit and inspiring intensity that – Christian or not – it is enrapturing to see so much conviction embodied in one man.
Along side Robert Duvall’s beguiling lead portrayal, he attains superlative support. Farrah Fawcett, Miranda Richardson, June Carter Cash, and a brief appearance by Billy Bob Thornton as the town’s racist troublemaker, all add to The Apostle’s opulence. In addition to the “big” names, in order to develop a strong sense of sincerity, Duvall selected both real-life preachers and earnest members of the Southern Christian community to join the cast in the film’s smaller roles. Still, it is Robert Duvall who single-handedly elevates The Apostle to its level of boldness. Not only is “The Apostle” an unforgettable cinematic character who would “push away the moon and the stars to get to Heaven,” but it is also an outstanding independent production whose impact is poignant and righteous. (***1/2 out of ****)