Beyond Good and Evil

Saintly sinning in Robert Duvall’s The Apostle.

The Apostle
Directed by Robert Duvall
October Films

A lot of actors have plastic features, the kind that mold and remold themselves according to their characters’ moods; others–primarily Republicans such as Clint Eastwood and Charlton Heston–have Mount Rushmore-esque features whose lack of plasticity is meant to betoken strength. Robert Duvall, uniquely, has a face that manages to be both granitelike and plastic. In repose, it is a chiseled mask, with avian eyes that give away little; then, swamped by feeling, those features wiggle and crack and loosen from their moorings. Does Duvall have a screw loose? I sometimes think so. His volcanic rages don’t have the put-on quality of post-Raging Bull Robert De Niro or the preening self-consciousness of Al Pacino; nor is he a simple-minded bully boy, like Harvey Keitel. On-screen, Duvall’s madness has a divine purity. No actor has ever brought the kind of belief to an evangelist that Duvall brings to Sonny, the tormented protagonist of The Apostle. And no one else could have created a character who stirs in the film audience such disparate responses: He’s magnificent, he’s dangerously crazy, he’s magnificent and he’s dangerously crazy.

The fact that Duvall gives such a glorious performance in The Apostle is likely to distract people from the fact that he has also written and directed a glorious movie–the most vivid and radiantly made of 1997. (The film opened briefly at the end of last year to qualify for various awards; it goes into general release next week.) The Apostle has a laid-back intimacy that reminds me, mutatis mutandis, of Jean Renoir, and a documentarian’s penchant for letting events play out at their own sweet speed. And if, as an actor, Duvall gets drunk on Sonny’s megalomania, as a director he keeps the character soberly in focus, so that we’re simultaneously swept up in Sonny’s good while recoiling from his evil, agog at his purity while giggling at the hamminess.

Duvall introduces Sonny as a small boy, being led by an immense black woman through the swinging doors of a back-country Texas church, where the restless child is mesmerized by a gospel preacher. In no time, the grown-up Sonny is perorating before congregations black, white, and mixed. Happening with his mama (June Carter Cash) past a multicar collision, he seizes his Bible and marches through a field to the worst-injured drivers. Sonny leans into the window, places his hand on the shoulder of a young man with gelid eyes and blood trickling from one ear, and exhorts him to live, live. He says that there are angels in the car, that the young man has nothing to fear if he accepts Jesus Christ as his savior–and, miraculously, the young man manages to thank him. We never learn if he or the woman in the car with him survive (We see her stir), but we know that Sonny’s prayers have got through to them. And we believe Sonny when he says, almost laughing in amazement at his own gifts, “Mama, we made news today in heaven.”

But frequently the news that Sonny makes is of the tabloid variety. Thanks in part to his “wandering eye and wickie-wickie ways,” he has lost his wife, Jessie (Farrah Fawcett), and two children (he calls them his “beauties”) to Horace (Todd Allen), a gentle, callow minister who seems to be, in every way, Sonny’s opposite. Civil and friendly toward his ex-wife and her lover, Sonny can turn suddenly, scarily needy–pounding on their door in the middle of the night and throwing a baseball through their window. When the anxious Jessie has him voted out of the Fort Worth church that they founded together, something ruptures: Unable to comprehend his banishment, Sonny spends days and nights in his mama’s attic railing at Jesus. (“I’ve always called you ‘Jesus,’ you’ve always called me ‘Sonny.’ “) Primed with liquor, he commits a shocking act of violence, then flees Texas for a new life–sinking his car in a swamp and baptizing himself “the Apostle E.F.”

The next 90 minutes of The Apostle recount that new life, which the Apostle E.F. builds from scratch in a ramshackle Louisiana Gulf town. In almost no time, he has secured a position as an auto mechanic and a room in the home of a good-hearted grease monkey (Walton Goggins). More important, he has sought out Brother Blackwell (John Beasley), a retired black preacher whose fervor once generated several heart attacks and who now reposes with his wife in a house under the highway. Blackwell doesn’t know if this self-dubbed Apostle has been sent by God or Satan (nor do we), but he trusts that the former will soon make that plain; in the meantime, he sets about helping E.F. to establish a parish.

Surveying a broken-down church by the side of the former interstate, Sonny murmurs, “Resurrection time … resurrection time. … Yes, sir.” He concludes, “I could do some shouting in here.” He checks out the space the way a jazz musician checks out a nightclub in which he’s about to perform. The Apostle’s preachings (one can hardly call them “sermons”) are marvelous production numbers, alternately plangent and syncopated; they make everyone–even those of us in the movie audience predisposed to find a Christian evangelist threatening–feel welcome. I’m not sure what he says in those numbers, only that I couldn’t take my eyes off him or stop myself from nodding when his congregants said, “Amen.” Duvall has an abysmal singing voice–gargling and off-key–but his speaking voice, his presence, is insistently musical. His Apostle E.F. is utterly certain of what he’s doing; and–even knowing what we know about his past–we can’t help sharing his conviction that something momentous is taking place in this small town.

W here other filmmakers have tried to assert that showmanship somehow precludes belief, Duvall demonstrates how showmanship and belief can reinforce and even galvanize each other, the former driving the latter to transcendental heights. (The roof of E.F.’s church features a neon arrow pointing skyward and the words “One Way Road to Heaven.”) “Holy Ghost power!!” might sound like something out of a used-car commercial–and Duvall is as clear-eyed on the capitalism-evangelism correlation as the Marxist-leaning Antony Thomas in his skeptical 1980s documentary Thy Kingdom Come …Thy Will Be Done. But Duvall also subscribes to an American dramatic tradition (which can be discerned in works as various as The Iceman Cometh and The Music Man) that says that any fervent belief, even one based on uncertain premises and fueled by an impure source, can give life, the way a placebo can be an authentic remedy if it empowers the body to heal itself. Who cares if the Apostle E.F. is a madman if he can make people’s spirits soar this high? And who’s to say he’s a villain if he doesn’t violate the trust that his parishioners have placed in him?

Sonny doesn’t seem to have nefarious political aims; he simply wants to create a warm and nurturing community with himself at the center. He spearheads food drives, and disarms a racist “troublemaker” (Billy Bob Thornton) with show-stopping bravura. At the same time, Duvall doesn’t go soft on his character. Sonny never shows a hint of remorse for the crime he committed. And when he courts the receptionist (Miranda Richardson, never so girlishly charming) at a radio station where he preaches, Sonny gives off glints both of his “wickie-wickie ways” and the concomitant jealousy that drove him to become a fugitive. He’s still one scary dude–jittery and, in some fundamental way, unformed.

The Apostle is not Duvall’s first directorial effort. Back in 1983, he made an oddity called Angelo My Love, a semi-improvised account of a boy coming of age among the gypsies. Watching that movie, I found myself simultaneously attracted to and repulsed by the characters in ways that left me confused (and also impressed). At times, Duvall seemed to be sentimentalizing the gypsies; at others, he seemed to be rubbing our noses in their ugliness and duplicity–or was that just my racism? It was hard to know. The same kind of tension exists in The Apostle, but these are Duvall’s people, and here he seems fully in control of our responses. The performances, down to the smallest congregant, could not be richer. And Duvall’s Sonny is both in our face and yet tantalizingly out of reach, infantile and of amazing stature. We wish we could be like him, and we thank the Lord Almighty that we’re not.