Robert Duvall writes,
directs, and stars in this story of a preacher
who is a fugitive from the law but who overcomes adversity
and founds a new church. This is a long film with a simple story,
but everything is rushed to leave time for Duvall's extended
sequences of preaching. These speeches are a joy to watch only
until it becomes obvious they are eating the rest of his film alive.
This is a good film that should have been a lot better.
Rating: 6 (0 to 10), 1 (-4 to +4)
New York Critics: 13 positive, 1 negative, 5 mixed
For years I have thought that Robert Duvall is the best American actor. And his acting in The Apostle is as good as ever. But Duvall has let his vanity run away from him in this film. He has what could be a moving story if he had taken the time to flesh it out. Instead he cut the story down to the bare minimum to allow for more time for his preaching sequences. The film comes in at a running time of 148 minutes, yet skimps on story-line for what should be a simple story to tell. One example of his skimping: Billy Bob Thornton goes through some emotional changes and should be a major character, but his entire presence in the film is reduced to two scenes, And Thornton's changes are too rushed, because the screenplay, written by Duvall give him only the two scenes.
Take all of the shouting and singling out of The Apostle and what is left is a rather simple and short story. Sonny Dewey (Duvall) is a charismatic Pentecostal preacher in both the common and the religious sense of "charismatic." He has been preaching in New Boston, Texas for so long that religion has become an essential part of his being. Every moment of the day if he is not preaching he is hymn-singing. If he is not hymn-singing he is trying to convert somebody. He seems to be incapable of speaking three consecutive sentences without one of them mentioning Jesus. But his dedication to preaching is not enough. Sonny's life starts to fall apart when his wife (Farrah Fawcett) and a young minister cheat on Sonny together and then manage to oust Sonny from his own church. When chance brings together Sonny, the young minister, and a baseball bat, Sonny unleashes his rage leaving the minister in a coma. Realizing that he is now in serious trouble, Sonny flees to Bayou Boutte, Louisiana where he cannot resist the temptation to start a new church. Sonny takes a new name, calling himself "the Apostle E. F." But he still preaches in the style for which he was known in Texas.
It is redundant at this point to say that Duvall is good as Sonny. That is really not the point. He does a terrific job that won an Oscar nomination and will very likely win the prize. There is just more of this performance than the film really needed. Farrah Fawcett nicely underplays her role as Duvall's wife. It is hard to believe looking at her worn hawk-like features that she was once a national pinup. But it is harder to believe that this is the same actress who seemed so untalented in Logan's Run. She deserved to be seen more in this film. Fawcett has come a long way. Miranda Richardson provides love interest in the new life. It would not be accurate to say, however, that Duvall steals the film but that as writer and director he never gives it to anyone else. He gives the film very believable dialog and captures the feel of the more rural sections of the deep South.
Duvall is a good director and a better actor. One can only disagree with some of the choices he made in bringing together this film. This could have been an expose in the tradition of Elmer Gantry. After national scandals of clergy people being shown to be hypocrites, it took some courage to make the hero of this film a preacher and a hypocrite. But Duvall does manage after a while to make his audience feel for Sonny and want him to succeed. The critics have mostly liked this film better than I did.