By Stephanie Zacharek
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By Heather Baysa
The driven, drawling Texas preacher Robert Duvall portrays in The Apostle is the latest in his long line of true believers, good and evil. Often taken for granted, this extraordinary actor has, on TV and in movies, played Nazi mass murderer Adolph Eichmann, Communist mass murderer Joseph Stalin, savior of democracy Dwight D. Eisenhower (twice), the German-Irish consigliere of the Corleone family and a couple of rock-jawed career soldiers ("I love the smell of napalm in the morning...") to such brilliant effect that he's long been regarded as a kind of cult treasure.
But that didn't convince any of the Hollywood studios to cough up $5 million--barely enough to pay the band on the deck of Titanic--to finance Duvall's little film, which he has wanted to make since getting his first look at Southern evangelists more than thirty years ago. So he took it upon himself to write, direct, executive-produce, star in and pay for the whole thing. If it wins him an Oscar this spring, the studio chiefs are going to look even more foolish than usual. At least October Films had the good sense to pick up the finished product for $6 million.
This is the sorrowful and oddly uplifting story of one E.F. "Sonny" Dewey, a tireless Pentecostal Jesus shouter with the time-honored movie gift of being able to save almost anybody's soul but his own. Sonny drives a new Lincoln Continental and wears pink ties with his slick white suits, but he's not quite the cynical charlatan we've come to expect in the era of Tammy Faye and Jimmy. He's so nourished by faith that he can stick his head inside a car wreck and give the gruesomely injured victims a surge of belief until the ambulance arrives. Like a jazz musician in an old-fashioned cutting session, he can exchange electrifying verbal riffs with a tag team of fellow preachers in a revival tent, waving his arms in ecstasy and--we are compelled to believe--communing with the Lord.
Of course, he also has his demons. Sonny's eye has sometimes roved among the women of his big-city congregation, he keeps a pint of whiskey in the car, and when his wife, Jessie (Farrah Fawcett, born again to drama), takes up with a young minister and connives to steal his church, Sonny takes a couple of nips and falls prey to a crime of passion. He's not Elmer Gantry working the rubes, but he can't help betraying himself when his world suddenly crumbles around him.
Wanted by the police and steeped in guilt, Sonny Dewey does the only thing possible for a man built like him. He dumps his Lincoln, tosses a few old clothes into his carry-on and grabs a bus. Heeding what seems to be equal parts divine inspiration and survival instinct, he lands in the tiny, dirt-poor town of Bayou Boutte, Louisiana. There he reinvents himself as "The Apostle E.F." and works day and night--three jobs--to build up a new flock among the wretched of the earth. The "One-Way Road to Heaven Holiness Temple" may be a modest one-room church in the boondocks, but for E.F., it's salvation itself.
As the Christian Coalition and assorted U.S. senators will tell you, godless Hollywood rarely sanctions religious faith, and this vivid home-made portrait of a man of God is certainly flecked with moral ambiguities. But for all his torment and the shadow of hypocrisy, the Apostle is indeed a true believer, and Duvall pulls off a little miracle: We come to believe him when he says "I love this church more'n I do myself."
From his fire and brimstone to his man's gift for broken-down bus repair, Duvall makes this picture his personal dramatic showcase, but like many actors who try their hands at directing, he's unfailingly generous with the other members of the cast. Fawcett's portrayal of the wayward wife is far more complex than we might expect of the old Charlie's Angels star. John Beasley gets some choice screen time in the pivotal role of the wary, retired black preacher whose country congregation E.F. reclaims. Sling Blade's Billy Bob Thornton pops up as a snarling bigot who's not immune to the Apostle's persuasions. And Rick Dial is the picture of small-town commerce as the owner of the low-wattage radio station E.F. uses to get his message to the people. His growing flock, meanwhile, is inhabited by other assorted gems, professional actors and inspired amateurs.
Still, Duvall commands undivided attention with a daring, finely detailed performance as a wounded man struggling to reconcile his rage and his fierce faith, the depth of his sin and the obsessive purity of his mission. No wonder he had to do the whole thing himself: Soldiers in the army of the Lord, like great character actors, quite often find themselves working alone.
Written and directed by Robert Duvall. With Robert Duvall, Farrah Fawcett, John Beasley, Billy Bob Thornton and Rick Dial.
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