The Apostle, an enthralling do-it-yourself labor of love by Robert Duvall (he wrote, executive-produced, and directed it, and paid for it out of his own pocket), makes most “independent” movies look like the pretenders they are. At a time when every hipster with a viewfinder is doing rip-offs of Reservoir Dogs or Clerks or Friends (or an unholy combo of the three), Duvall dares to build an entire film around the subject of religious passion and redemption — a subject that invites disdain or indifference, because so few movies actually get it right. The Apostle nails it.
Duvall is also courageous enough to play the protagonist, Pentecostal preacher Sonny Dewey, as a study in extremes and contradictions. Sonny spreads — no, make that shouts — the word of God, but he’s also a sinner, a smoothie who cheats on his wife (Farrah Fawcett) and also beats her; when he finds out she’s been having her own affair, the way she recoils and says “Keep your hands over there” speaks volumes without our having to see the abuse. Sonny is also about to be ousted from his own church; enraged, he does some damage to the church’s upstart minister (who’s been sleeping with Fawcett) and promptly gets out of town.
At the start, Sonny seems like a madman — a violently confused man hitching his passions to God’s wagon, justifying his sins because he’s been “saved.” But Sonny isn’t the kind of Bible-thumping hypocrite we usually meet in movies. He’s serious, and Duvall plays Sonny as a flawed saint in the throes of religious mania. Sonny has a powerful effect on churchgoers, who believe that God is working through him — and if they believe it, then his impact on them is the same as if he really were God’s instrument. The movie is about finding faith in the unlikeliest places and having faith in the unlikeliest people.
After the incident with the minister, Sonny leaves his former life and settles into a Louisiana bayou town, where he adopts the name “E.F., the Apostle” and starts gathering a new flock. With the help of a motley crew of believers — a retired minister (John Beasley), a young mechanic (Walton Goggins), a radio DJ (Rick Dial) — Sonny sets up a modest church immodestly named One Way Road to Heaven. He also pursues a secretary at the radio station (Miranda Richardson) — a rather aimless plot thread that could have been pulled out without unraveling the movie.
The Apostle builds up steam as the church gains more converts (watching a community built from the ground up is one of the basic, satisfying pleasures in rural movies). It leads to a great scene with Billy Bob Thornton as a racist lout who threatens to demolish the church. We know that Sonny’s fearless stance against the racist isn’t just noble: He isn’t about to be chased out of another church. Sonny goes to work on the lout, trying to convert him, and I felt a stab of worry; scenes like this never work. But this one does. Duvall and Thornton play it with the conviction of men who understand the pain of salvation — the overwhelming mix of relief and vulnerability that born-agains are said to feel when they “give it over to Jesus.”
This is also one of the few showboat writer-director-star films that don’t feel like a vanity project. Duvall’s integrity and intelligence shine through his movie and his performance. Funny, tender, menacing, exuberant, sometimes all at once, Duvall makes Sonny a man possessed by divine love, earthly passions, and all the angels and devils in between. We never really know Sonny (Duvall keeps him a mystery to us), but we understand him perfectly. The Apostle digs into the souls of the intensely devoted ex-sinners you sometimes meet, the former addicts whose current drug of choice is God. By painting Sonny in complex, conflicting colors, Duvall respects his humanity, and so do we.