Spoiler Warning

Always assume Spoilers and possible profanity in context. These are often adult themed movies.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Apostle

What About It?
(for a full summary of the film, scroll down to "What Happens?")

The Apostle is a movie which Robert Duvall is almost entirely responsible for. He wrote, directed, and played the lead role. The settings and the details included are amazingly authentic, and I wouldn't be a bit surprised if his church services served as real services, down to the choir, the frenzy, and the sermons. The enthusiasm and zeal of this particular type of church is astonishing. Duvall comes across as completely believable as a fiery intense preacher. He also presents a compelling sincerity, that permeates the character, even through all of his mistakes.

While it's no surprise to anyone that an evangelist can be flawed, it is a surprise to see such a sincere and authentic examination of a man's struggle with them. While he does contain the traits of a con man, he isn't out for money, he genuinely wants to serve his God and do something good for others. He knows what his problems are and doesn't deny them. In his view, God knows exactly what he is and the same goes the other way. He isn't hesitant to yell at God when he's angry. His relationship with God is the one constant for him, even when he doesn't like it.

Watching others react to him is an interesting part of the movie. Sonny knows how to manipulate people. He knows very well how to talk to let someone know he's a preacher, and we do see him using this to his advantage. His goals, however, are not predatory, and his influence is used for things like a pup tent to sleep in and help in building a church for the people to use. His first introductions to people in the Louisiana church are met with skepticism, everyone having dealt with or heard about scam artist evangelists. The factor that convinces them to believe in him is his work, which shows his true sincerity. Once that is established, the people tend to place him on a pedestal, believing everything he says without question. This also causes other reactions, such as Billy Bob Thornton's character, who sees his elevated position and due to his own pain, wants nothing more than to tear him down. John Beasley as  Rev. Blackwell  also turns in a wonderful understated performance, his character's quiet kindness and dignity, lending weight to Sonny's effort's in the community. His unconventional attitude towards Sonny once the facts of his past are revealed, shows a rare trust, and strength of character.

The only person who really knows him inside and out is Jessie, who knows all about his wandering eye and other bad things he's done. She has her own ideas, and stops seeing him as a holy man, realizing it isn't as simple as that. While she claims a faith of her own, she doesn't share his flamboyance, and after years, even seems to find it tiresome. She is comfortable treating their church as a business, which to Sonny would be unthinkable. He feels the church is more like a part of himself, and it's likely he could have handled the idea of a divorce more easily than the loss of his church.  Farrah Fawcett gets the character perfectly. She presents a more balanced approach, with her faith as a part of her life, rather than Sonny's all consuming type. His zeal becomes too much for her to handle, particularly when she is well aware of his many flaws.  She can no longer put him on the pedestal, she no doubt fell for initially, and resents that she had ever elevated him, which leads her to resentment.

Sonny doesn't feel bound by convention. Perhaps due to his faith, he feels as if he can run from his crime and get a "new start." His baptising of himself indicates that belief, likewise, going by another name, E.F., the Apostle is more to him than an alias to escape arrest (although that is certainly also a factor.) He asks for another chance, and from his point of view he gets not only one, but two, as his interactions with his fellow inmates suggests.

One crucial reason that Sonny is so relatable is his style and his message, which show through his actions as much as his words. He doesn't tear anyone done or present himself as anyone's superior. He eagerly gets his hands dirty to get things done which help others.  While he isn't opposed to beating somebody that's in his way, he does so out of necessity, not malice, both seen in his dealings with Billy Bob Thornton's character. He is not however immune to anger, particular when things are "taken from him" He has plenty of failings, his anger and his eye for women, being foremost. However, the fact that he does not spend his time attacking others for his failings, keeps us from finding him a hypocrite. He is flesh and blood after all, and those things are his own cross to bear. He does pay for them severely, and doesn't grumble when he's forced to pay up.
His faith is a personal one, and he seems to regard God as someone who knows him and where he messes up, so doesn't bother trying to pretend otherwise. Rather than a force to be feared. he talks to God as you would an old friend, who has your best interests in mind.

This isn't a film which requires any religious belief, but neither is it a film which attacks that belief. This is quite simply, an authentic story about a man striving sincerely to serve a cause he firmly believes in, although his own human nature gets in the way. We can help but sympathize with his earnestness and compassion. While religion can be attacked for many evils, a man's faith is his personal business. We walk with Sonny when no one else is around, so we don't question what he really believes. Is a man's faith invalid because he isn't perfect? I can't imagine anyone would say so. What we don't like is hypocrisy, acting out faith for a baser agenda, a phenomenon that's been attacked many times and hopefully always will. I can sympathize with a failure or celebrate an accomplishment equally if there is sincerity behind each of them.

Duvall's performance can't be overpraised. As Sonny, he cares about people far more than lining his own pockets, and that's what makes him so compelling. That, and his enthusiasm, Sonny is a character of extremes, faith, sincerity, love, anger, stubbornness, lust, he has them all, but he also has a purpose driving him, which mostly allows him to accomplish his goals. God isn't an act that Sonny puts on, but the driving force in his life. He may talk like a scam artist, but that's only because it's Sonny's sincerity and passion that the scam artists imitate to fleece the people. He's the real thing, not an imitation. Duvall has constructed a complicated and riveting character that you feel like you've actually met by the end of the film.  It's that performance that makes this a brilliant film, helped by attention to detail that makes his world as realistic as Sonny is. We end up with a celebration of the marvelous complexity that can sometimes make up a real human being.

What Happens?

Watching a movie about an evangelist, we expect an expose on the hypocrisy of men of the cloth. As any real life televangelist scandal indicates, we are eager to see those who claim they are holy exposed, especially when their actions show them so far from holiness. It's easy to forget , that despite your own beliefs, every man of faith is not necessarily a charlatan. We all have our flaws, but wrestling with your nature does not make you a fraud (although it could appear that way) It can however, make a compelling story.

Sonny Dewey (Robert Duvall) is a man of faith. At the beginning of the movie we see him as a little boy (and the only white person) attending an enthusiastic black church, where the preacher speaks with fervor and the whole congregation hangs on his words in excitement . We then skip to Sonny as an older man driving down the street with his mother (June Carter Cash)and noticing the scene of an accident. He stops the car and has his mother wait. He finds a man and woman who were in the accident, in terrible condition. Unsure if they'll live or die, he speaks to the man, who was driving, encouraging him to "open his heart to Jesus, and he'll stand by you whether you go home or stay here with us." The man can barely move or talk but he musters a sincere "Thank you." before Sonny pulls his head out of the window to comply with the police request. The officer confronts him

Officer: "I guess you think you accomplished something in there, huh?"
Sonny: "I know I did. All I know is I did not put my head through that window in vain."
Officer: How do you know?
Sonny: Well, I'll tell you. I would rather die today and go to heaven, than live to be a hundred and go to hell."
Sonny asks "Momma" to pray for the couple, and we see the wife who didn't stir in passenger's seat, move her hand to clutch her husband's arm.

We then find Sonny at home, singing gospel songs with his two kids and Momma and his much younger wife, Jessie Dewey (Farrah Fawcett) Sonny has a flashback, recalling the church from the beginning scene, only now a little older but still a young boy, preaching at the congregation, with great intensity. He goes outside to say goodbye to his kids, as Jessie is taking them to camp, driving along with Horace, the youth pastor. (who is much closer to Jessie's age) Sonny is due at a tent revival meeting, where he and several other preachers have an adoring crowd, thrilled to hear of "the Holy Ghost Power"

He makes several other appearances at different types of venues, but his message and enthusiasm are the same every time. He refers to himself as being "on the Devil's hitlist." In the middle of his tour, he wakes up in the middle of the night, forcing his fellow preacher and travelling companion, Joe, to wake up as well. Joe tells him they're going the wrong way. Sonny tells him "If someone's in my bed that's supposed to be there, we'll be back on the road in twenty four hours in the right direction."

Joe: "Who, Jessie?"
Sonny: "Yeah, my sweet wife Jessie. You bet!"

Sonny finds his bed empty however, and tucks a gun into his pants, before heading to Horace's house where Jessie is sleeping with Horace. Sonny attempts to force the door halfheartedly, walking Horace. Jessie tells him to go back to sleep, but suspects it's Sonny. Sonny returns to the car, considering leaving, but reconsiders and throws a rock through the bedroom window.

The next morning he meets with Jessie, who tells him she wants out. She asks him not to make a big ordeal out of it, reminding him that she knows a lot about what he's does and has done. He asks her to pray with him, but she isn't interested. He leaves saying "God bless ya. You're gonna need it." He soon finds several people from his church waiting for him, who tell him that Jessie is going through proper channels to take his church away from him, by having him voted out.

Later that night, Sonny starts yelling at God, in his room, saying "If you won't give me back my wife, give me peace. I don't know who's been fooling with me, you or the Devil.I don't know! I won't even bring the human into this. He's just a mutt, so I won't bring him into this, but I'm confused, I'm mad. I love you Lord, but I am mad at you! I AM MAD AT YOU!"

He then reveals a little more about his history, telling God (still yelling "I know I'm a sinner every once in a while, a womanizer, but I'm your servant. Since I was a little boy and you brought me back from the dead, I'm your servant. What should I do? Tell me. I've always called you Jesus, you've always called me Sonny, so what should I do. This is Sonny talking now!"

Momma gets a call from a neighbor complaining that it sounds like a wild man over there and people need to get their sleep. Momma says "That's Sonny, sometimes he talks to the Lord, sometimes he yells at the Lord. Tonight he just happens to be yelling at him" The neighbor starts demanding that she tell him to quiet down, but Momma hangs up smiling. Sonny then decides to show up at the church despite being voted out. He jumps up on the stage and starts dancing with the singers and enjoying himself. He informs some of the people, that weren't aware that he's no longer the pastor. A few of them offer to go with him if he starts a new church, but he leaves.

He shows up to see one of his sons at a ball game. Jessie tells him he shouldn't have come and soon Horace confronts him mildly, asking if everything's alright. Horace attempts to grab Sonny's arm, to prevent him from getting closer to Jessie and the game. Sonny changes his calm attitude.

Sonny: "Well I want to see my beauties, if you don't mind."
Horace: "Listen Sonny, I'm really and truly sorry about what's happened here. I really am."
Sonny: Well, let me tell you something. Why don't you just butt out of here before I take my boot here and tear you another asshole, right where your nose is at. You understand me?"
Horace: There ain't no call for that kind of talk now."
Sonny: We'll see about that.

Sonny joins his kids, putting his arm around Jessie, as if she's coming with him. When Horace starts after them, they end up shoving, but Sonny grabs a baseball bat from one of his kids and hits Horace in the head with it, killing him. He says, "One for the road." and then attempts to drag Jessie home with him, though he gives up when the kids start screaming and she gets away. The crowd gathers around Horace, panicked.

He tells Joe what happened, that he suspects Horace is dead, and asks Joe to say hello to his kids and momma, as he can't tell them what he's done and has to go. Sonny drives to Louisiana, abandons his car and starts walking down the road, constantly talking to God about his situation. He tells a very abbreviated story to a man he finds fishing, who thinks he talks like a preacher. He eagerly offers Sonny the pup tent in his back yard that his grand kids play in. Sonny starts fasting in the pup tent, remembering the voices of Jessie and Momma. He "baptizes himself as an Apostle" in the river. The man offering the pup tent, tells him of a cousin who's a retired pastor, named Charles Blackwell. He sets off to find Blackwell on Bayou Boutte, Louisiana. Not knowing anything about the town, he asks God to lead him "every step of the way." He happens on a mechanic, struggling to fix a truck problem, which he solves for him. This turns into a job offer for him.

He then continues looking for Charles Blackwell (John Beasley) He knocks on Blackwell's door, announcing himself as the Apostle E.F., and telling Blackwell that the Lord sent him to have fellowship with him. Blackwell invites him in. He tells Blackwell that he had a dream from the Lord which directed him to speak with Blackwell about starting a church. Blackwell is skeptical, and tells him that he's got to watch for the devil. He tells Sonny that before he considers starting a church with him, "the Lord will have to lead him too."

He says he'll pray about it and keep an eye on Sonny with the idea in mind. Sonny heads to a the radio station (which is run by Elmo who also owns the garage) to see about getting promotion for his church idea. Elmo tells him, due to being unpaid by preachers in the past, he offers radio time on a "pay before you pray deal." Sam, the mechanic he helped, offers to let him stay at his place, prompting Sonny to tell God, "I'm not mad at you, and I'll never be mad again."

Blackwell shows him an old building he could use for his church. Sonny starts working and saves money for supplies to renovate the building for the church. He calls Joe, who informs him that Horace is in a coma, and that Momma is in the hospital. Sam and Blackwell help him with his efforts. He starts preaching on the radio, fascinating the attractive and young radio station receptionist, Toosie (Miranda Richardson, who has also caught his wandering eye) Kids in the community show up to help with the church. He meets Toosie for dinner and she reveals that she's "kind of separated"

After calling Jessie, just to hang up, he sits in front of his church at night, now complete with a lighted arrow sign pointed upwards, saying "One Way Road to Heaven" He thanks God for helping him "Do something." and asks him to let Horace live. Sonny and Blackwell drive around in a bus they'd restored, picking people up to bring them to church. Blackwell laughs telling Sonny (realizing his congregation is almost entirely black) that when people hear him preach on the radio "Most all the white people think you're black. Most all the colored people know you ain't black, but they sure do like your style of preaching." Blackwell adds: "So, what you see is what we got." Sonny adds, "And what we got, the Lord sent." His first service, is a fairly empty room, but everyone enjoys it. Using the radio, and through word of mouth, his services grow and he starts a program delivering food to people who need it.

A service is disrupted, by a "Troublemaker" (Billy Bob Thornton) who interrupts a service demanding him to know why he's called E.F. When he refuses to leave, Sonny takes him outside and beats him up, although the troublemaker threatens to "come back and see him" He explains to the people, that he knows you should turn the other cheek, but he isn't going to let anyone take his church. Toosie shows up at a service and seems impressed with what he has going. He drives her home, in the the bus, and makes his intentions very clear, saying "I'm not like other preachers. I'm a man and you're a woman and I like you." He's persistent trying to get her to let him in the house, but she says "next time."

He calls home to learn his mother isn't doing well and wants to see him. He tells her he'll try to get up there and Joe says he needs to do it soon. He tells Joe to tell her about his new church. We see Joe looking at Momma in an open coffin.

The church is now completely full and during an outside celebration, the Troublemaker comes back with a bulldozer, telling Sonny, "I told you I'd come back." He tells Sonny he's going to take the church out because they don't want it there anymore. Sonny puts a Bible down in front of the bulldozer and tells the troublemaker he'll have to run it over. His associates, refuse to move the Bible, afraid of being struck down by God. He gets off the bulldozer to remove the Bible, but is clearly hesitant with fear. Sonny kneels down at the Bible with him, and comforts the man as he breaks down and reveals his motives are deeper, than wanting to knock the church down.

Working at his part time cook job, Sonny sees Toosie having dinner with her husband and kids, and quits on the spot, saying he'll never serve food through that window again. He reveals his whole story to Rev. Blackwell (Sam, the mechanic is listening outside) and asks him, what he wants him to do. Rev. Blackwell says, "Whatever you want to do. We love you. You've helped many, many people in the town"

Sonny tells Rev. Blackwell that if they come for him, to sell the things he leaves behind to make money for the church to keep it alive."

Rev. Blackwell says, "He places us right where he wants us to be, in all times and in all places. You believe that?"
Sonny: "Amen, brother, I do."
Sam is clearly distressed at what he's heard, though neither is aware that he's there.

Sonny is soon to be a victim of his own success, as the radio show has picked up more followers, and Jessie hears him on the radio and reports him to the Bayou Boutte, Police Department. In the middle of a service, a police officer shows up for him. He tells the officer to wait until the service is over and he'll be right with him, but he's rattled, and opens up the service to the audience. The officer waits patiently at the door as Sonny tries to give everyone he can a chance to speak. Soon however, more police officers show up, the radio telling them he's considered armed and dangerous. Sonny works himself up into a real sermon. Outside, we see officers with their weapons out and waiting. When he calls people to came forward and accept Jesus, Sammy, comes forward. He announces that he's leaving them, and promises to meet them in heaven. He walks over to the officer willingly. When Sammy follows him out he gives him his jewelry, for Rev. Blackwell and gives Sammy his Bible. Sammy goes inside and Sonny is driven off to prison. During the credits, we see Sonny leading his fellow inmates in a call and answer recitation, where they yell, "Jesus" to questions he calls out.


stonytonloc said...

Amen,Brother a great movie and an even better review.I can definitely relate to Sonny.Great Quote "Is a man's faith invalid because he isn't perfect".We are born of the flesh,we also born into sin.Fortunately the Lord forgives us.While with people we aren't as fortunate sometimes.I loved the way,he showed we are after all only men.Born to make mistakes,But we can still do good in this world.After everything his faith never wavered,he got angry yes,who doesn't and who could blame him.Thanks for a great movie and review,I look forward to more.God Bless You!

Kap said...

Another of my favorites. You made me want to watch it again.

INDBrent said...

@stonyloc, glad you liked it. Yes, people are complicated. Sonny's faith was not changeable, a true sign of his earnestness as was his anger. If everyone who did wrong, couldn't do good any longer, we wouldn't have any good would we?

INDBrent said...

@Kap, Glad to hear it. THis is one of my favorites too. I love the honesty and the objectivity of it. Like I said, I felt like I'd met this guy.