I sat in a theatre alone watching The Apostle. Late 1990s. I’ve always loved going to movies by myself – are you there to talk to other people? I started going to movies by myself when I was in high school. I’ll happily go with a friend or in a group – but having no one to go with has never been a deterrent. Sometimes you see the very best movies when you’re on your own. Your attention belonging solely to the images on the screen.
When I sat there in front of The Apostle, I sat in in awe. It was, I believed, a perfect film.
I went as a fan of Robert Duvall – by then I’d seen him in many 90s movies as a jobbing guy, bit-parts sometimes, but he would very nearly steal the show. Even in his lesser known, lesser praised films he has his way with a line. He delivers it and it burns right into you. But of course I’d also seen a lot of his 70s work – which is where he really made his name as a Hollywood act.
Duvall started in theatre and TV in the early 1950s – his big screen debut was in 1962’s To Kill A Mockingbird, as Boo Radley. In the 1970s he was a powerful, adaptable presence for the new wave of auteurs changing the delivery of movies. So he was crucial in MASH and The Godfather and Network and Apocalypse Now. Across the 1980s and 1990s he continued to do great work, sometimes in small films (True Believers) and his “lifetime achievement” award arrived with the Golden Globe win for his role in the sweeping TV mini-series, Lonesome Dove; a reminder to audiences of Duvall’s roots, and building on his mid-80s Academy Award win for Tender Mercies.
All of this is to tell you the background of my Duvall appreciation. Because when The Apostle was released into theatres I not only knew full well who he was, I was a paid-up and card-carrying Fanclub type. So when you added the knowledge that The Apostle was also written, directed and produced by Duvall I was near to salivating.
This is a salvation story with a twist. This, to me, is the great examination of faith and the problems with only wishing to present people as virtuous – good people are tested and do bad things. Bad people had good qualities, or are capable of good.
I’ve thought about The Apostle a lot over the years. I watched it once in the cinema. I bought it on DVD when the big home-buying DVD boom kicked off nearly 20 years ago (and I was working in a store where staff discount all but rendered me powerless). The realities of shelving, and the sanity needed for being part of a family (and for them to want me to remain part of it) meant that the enormous DVD collection was whittled way back, and long before there were streaming options to cover most bases. So I probably only watched The Apostle one other time – but it was burned into me.
Duvall does a perfectly fine job as director – never getting in the way of his movie, allowing the scenes to play out and build, time is taken to establish the mood and motives and to explore the machinations of his lead character – and his performance is extraordinary. As Euliss F. “Sonny” Dewey, a Pentecostal preacher, Duvall is electric. In fact we don’t even see Robert Duvall on screen. We only see Sonny. We feel Sonny burning his way into every scene. There are these things that happen – little things. And they build up the bigger picture. Sonny has a tiny little run that he bursts into, to get a few paces ahead, like he is excited by his thoughts, excited by the path to the lord that he is forever walking, he has to get a step or two ahead, or in fact he already is a step or two ahead and this is his body racing to catch up with his mind. It’s one of the great wee acting gestures. I remember watching it the first time, thinking that not only did Duvall deserve the Oscar that he was nominated for but that Sonny’s walk deserved a nod for best supporting.
(Jack Nicholson would win by the way, for As Good As It Gets. It was a pretty good year for performances. Matt Damon was up for Good Will Hunting, Peter Fonda for Ulee’s Gold and Dustin Hoffman for Wag the Dog. Duvall stole the show, and I’d have been happy with Hoffman getting it for his Wag The Dog mugging – but it was Nicholson’s turn for a little “lifetime achievement”).
Apparently Duvall wrote The Apostle in the 1980s – he collected up ideas for a script from a few preachers he met and watched; he loved the rhythm of their sermons. He tried for years to get the film made and no one was interested. After his early 1990s run of bit parts (you don’t remember him in The Handmaid’s Tale, Rambling Rose, Falling Down, Wrestling Ernest Hemingway, Geronimo, The Paper, Something To Talk About and Phenomenon but he was there for all of them and great in most of them) he had collected up enough paychecks to fund the film himself. That’s what he did. Launching The Apostle into the world via $5million of his own money and through his own production company.
It was well received. A tricky subject matter, and a film that wasn’t necessarily feelgood, nor easy to grasp. So the awards it did receive (many critics choice and festival nods for both the movie as a whole and particularly for Duvall’s acting) were well earned.
But time hasn’t elevated it to classic status. I thought it was an instant classic. I left the theatre unable to think about much else for days.
So, finally I get to watching it again. First time in quite a while.a
The Apostle has lost nothing.
I’d had a suspicion that in recent years the film might stand out even more so – its storytelling, its performances, its soundtrack even – all good and important things. But in 2018 and 2019 and 2020 and now 2021 we appear to have forgotten the value in examining the whole conundrum. That a good person can do something bad. That a bad person is capable of good. That good and bad are often just value propositions. Studying Sonny in 2021 is fascinating.
I should point out I guess that I don’t condone any of Sonny’s actions. I’m not a religious person, nor looking to be – so I’m not here to tell you that his devotion to the lord does anything good for me. But as an examination of faith there is no better than The Apostle. As a study in flawed humankind, in the twists and kinks within humanity, there is no better. And as a spotlight on the kindness of the South in America, the giving and forgiving, The Apostle is subtle and assuring.
If you’ve read this far and don’t know the story of Sonny – The Apostle – then I can tell you, without spoiling it, that this man of faith murders the lover of his estranged wife. In a rage he bats him in the head in front of his own children and a gathered crowd of little league parents and kids. So, Sonny takes that as a sign. He has to skip out of town. He pushes his car in the river, baptises himself and is reborn as a new preacher in a new location. He takes a series of meaningless jobs, he relies on charity, he starts an affair with one of the locals. And he sets up a congregation, integrating blacks and whites, bringing people together due to the power of his persuasion and the confidence and charisma of his actions.
Sonny is a womaniser, a drinker, a conundrum. Sonny is fanatical and devoted and the impact of the lord on his life has a story he believes so fully that he cannot see his own blind spots. (None of us can of course, that’s why they’re called what they are).
In the final scene of The Apostle we watch Sonny giving himself a send-off. It’s an amazing piece of storytelling – the separate tenets of acting, directing and writing (in this case all one vision coming together by one man) are hypnotic.
The Apostle’s masterstroke is the integration of brilliant, established actors with first-timers and unknowns. Joining Duvall in a strong lead cast is Farah Fawcett in maybe her last great and meaningful role. Miranda Richardson – all class. Billy Bob Thornton returns the cameo favour after Duvall appeared in his similarly themed one-man tour-de-force passion project, Sling Blade. And for southern authenticity – and in a link to the great country/gospel soundtrack, musicians Billy Joe Shaver and June Carter Cash are cast in small, important roles. There were also many non-actors to flesh out the crowd scenes in the church. In other words, those believers are in fact true believers.
One of the great things about watching a movie again after so many years is putting a name to the face because an actor has triumphed – has gone on to be known. In The Apostle the role of Sam is crucial. He is a discple of Sonny, by then rechristened The Apostle. Sam is a small-town mechanic who would die to honour Sonny’s word. He’s a tightly coiled hick. He is played with utmost conviction and not many words by the brilliant Walton Goggins, then in one of his earliest adult roles – now known as not just as an amazing and diverse character actor, but particularly for his stunning work on TV shows Justified, Sons of Anarchy, Vice Principals and The Righteous Gemstones and for recent films Django Unchained, The Hateful Eight and, erm, Tomb Raider.
The Apostle remains a perfect film. I’m convinced of that.
What makes it perfect? The fact that it won’t ever be for everyone.
Movies of My Life started life as a series of posts on the Phantom Billstickers Facebook page