Thursday, April 17, 2014

The Apostle

Format: Streaming video from NetFlix on laptop.

Today was “Ask an Atheist Day” according to the Secular Student Alliance. Based on the way this made my Facebook status blow up, there are evidently a ton of questions out there regarding a lack of faith, although in my case it’s more appropriate to say that there was one person with a laundry list of questions that never seemed to stop coming. I thought it would be appropriate to watch a film with a number of theological overtones and undertones today, which led me to The Apostle, which is currently streaming on NetFlix. This is a film I’d seen before, but it’s also been some time since I’ve rewatched something.

In a purely cinematic sense, when it comes to this film you need to ask yourself one question: How do you approach a film that contains the single greatest performance of one the greatest actors of his generation? Robert Duvall is one of the great actors of his or any generation. I feel I can say that without much debate. And The Apostle is his greatest piece of acting. This is a guy with a half dozen Oscar nominations and a statute, a man who held his own with John Wayne and Marlon Brando, and in a career that has spanned decades, he was never better than in the just-over two hours of The Apostle. Disagree if you like, but you’re wrong.

Euliss “Sonny” Dewey (Duvall) is a Pentecostal preacher in Texas with a penchant for straying in his marriage. That marriage is in trouble in part because his wife Jessie (Farrah Fawcett) has been straying herself with a youth pastor named Horace (Todd Allen). Sonny wants to fix his family but she wants out, and enforces this by having Sonny pushed out of the church by using the church bylaws. Frustrated, Sonny attends a Little League game of his children and confronts Horace. This ends with Sonny taking a baseball bat to Horace, putting the young man in a coma.

Sonny flees and after a few days of prayer and fasting rebaptizes himself and christens himself The Apostle E.F. He leaves Texas and winds up in a small town in Louisiana looking to start his life anew and, for as long as he can, stay out of the reach of the law.

But E.F. can’t be kept down. Contacting a former preacher named C. Charles Blackwell (John Beasley), E.F. occupies the man’s old church and renovates it. He also advertises on a local radio station to attract a new flock to minister to. He peppers all of this with some good deeds around the town, pays for everything by working multiple jobs, and even finds time to date the receptionist Toosie (Miranda Richardson) of the local radio station. He believes her to be a kindred spirit in some ways because she is also separated from her family and her children.

But things can’t go on forever, and when Horace finally succumbs to his coma, the hunt for Euliss Dewey is on. With E.F.’s penchant for high volume radio preaching, it’s only a matter of time until someone with knowledge of his past hears him on the radio and brings the forces of law to bear on the man.

That’s really it. The Apostle is a story of faith both powerful and misguided, of loss and redemption, and of the acceptance of fate and consequence. And the whole thing rests on the shoulders of Duvall, who also wrote the script and directed the film. I very much got the impression that this was a work of singular importance to Duvall. I have no idea of the man’s actual faith or his true opinion of Pentecostalism. If he is of an ecstatic mindset, this is a very even treatment of a character who has tremendous faith but is also terribly flawed. If he is not a believer, it’s an equally even treatment of a character who finds great motivation from his faith and blames his own failings on himself.

Duvall is surrounded by solid performances on all sides. This might be the best work of Farah Fawcett’s career as well, and I say that without irony. She’s believable and excellent in every scene she’s in. There are cameos for June Carter Cash as Sonny’s mother and for Billy Bob Thornton as a local outraged by a church that allows people of different races to worship together. I’d be remiss not to mention Walton Goggins who plays a young man essentially adopted into the faith by the apostle and who suffers both from hero worship and the destruction of his hero by the time the film ends.

Aside from Duvall’s riveting performance, the single best feature of The Apostle is its treatment of the subject. Even an apostate like myself was not overwhelmed by the constant religious reference in the film, which is pretty impressive for a film that trades on religious belief this heavily. Like any good character, The Apostle E.F. is a living, breathing entity with a past and with believable traits and characteristics. He’s a fully realized character, and is a wonder to behold.

I said this before: Robert Duvall has never been better than he is here. He’s always worth watching and he may reach these heights in other films, but he’s never surpassed what he does here.

Why to watch The Apostle: Robert Duvall has never been better, and that’s saying something.

Why not to watch: Constant proselytization.

6 comments:

  1. Couldn't agree more. When I first saw your Twitter announcement for this piece, I thought to myself, "He's gonna review either 'The Great Santini' or 'The Apostle.'" My own bias was toward "The Apostle," and I'm glad to discover that yours is as well. Remember that list of religion-themed films I mentioned? This one is definitely on it.

    In grad school, I knew two Catholics who converted to Catholicism after being members of a charismatic sect very much like the Christianity portrayed in Duvall's film. They saw "The Apostle," some years after their conversion to Catholicism, and told me they were riveted: it was a true-to-life portrayal, and for them, it was a jarring return to the recent past.

    In some ways, I put this film in the same category as other labors-of-love (a less charitable term might be "vanity projects") by actor-directors, e.g., "Dances with Wolves" by Kevin Costner, and "Braveheart" by Mel Gibson. I think you're on to something when you say Duvall seemed deeply invested in this undertaking. Duvall's film doesn't have the epic breadth of Costner's and Gibson's films (no huge battles, David Lean-esque landscape shots, or sweeping musical score), but what it lacks in breadth it more than makes up for in depth and interiority. It's an intense, complex film, and a train-wreck of a fascinating story.

    Great review.

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  2. I haven't seen The Great Santini yet. I admit that when I wrote the second paragraph of this, that I was thinking of that film and wondering if I'd need to go back and amend this later.

    The Apostle isn't a perfect film, and it might well have been a more complete or better film in the hands of a more experienced director. Its flaws, though, are easily overlooked based on the massive presence of Duvall at the center of the drama. This is a film that ranks for me with ones like La Vie en Rose or Cool Hand Luke as examples of acting at its purest and best.

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  3. Great review here. I love this movie. It depicts physical violence in an authentic way, and, as you pointed out, contains the best acting of one of the best actors that's ever lived. And that Billy Bob cameo is just superb. My favorite scene of the film.

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    1. That's a great scene in a film with a lot of them. His entrance and exit when he's kicked out of his church is great, as is his final sermon.

      I love Billy Bob Thornton in this. He's another who offers a purely real and natural performance. Both of his scenes are good, but the second one with the bulldozer is fantastic.

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