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'Apostle's' Saving Grace

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 30, 1998


Movie Scene Robert Duvall is married to Farrah Fawcett in "The Apostle." (October Films)

Robert Duvall
Robert Duvall;
Farrah Fawcett;
Miranda Richardson;
Todd Allen;
John Beasley;
June Carter Cash;
Billy Bob Thornton
Running Time:
2 hours, 13 minutes
Under 17 restricted

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Perhaps any performance suffused with verbal fire and brimstone will get undue attention, especially around Oscar time. But Robert Duvall's performance in "The Apostle" is not only flashy and expansive, it's delicate and finely tuned. As a preacher literally hellbent on redemption, Duvall confirms what everyone should already know: He's one of the great actors of his time.

Sonny Dewey (Duvall), a charismatic Texas preacher, lives in a world dedicated entirely to God. Or so he fervently believes. Not everyone agrees. His wife, Jessie (Farrah Fawcett, who has aged into a personality infinitely more interesting than her 1970s pinup days), has taken up with a younger preacher because of Sonny's overbearing intensity and his womanizing. Sonny's two children-his "beauties," as he calls them-may be the apple of his eye, but their biblical incantations are for his fascistic pleasure rather than their own juvenile rapture. And his church, after some internal wrangling, votes him out into the cold. In Sonny's vision-and the great thing about this movie is the way it reflects his perspective without irony or caricature-God has plunged him into deepest darkness, the ultimate moral test of his life. Furious, desperate and unable to accept defeat, he commits an act of instant and shocking brutality. He takes flight immediately, dumping his car into a nearby river.

A chance meeting with a good-hearted stranger gives Sonny the sign he's been looking for: A Louisiana preacher named Brother Blackwell might want to use Dewey's services.

Sonny journeys to a place called Bayou Boutte, where he meets and charms the retired Blackwell (John Beasley), then starts the swift and determined road to his redemption. Sonny's agenda involves nothing less than rebuilding Blackwell's closed-down church and creating a new community.

Is Sonny being led by God, the devil, delusion or sheer psychosis? Sonny wonders himself, in his darkest moments. But he perseveres with an intensity that-in Bayou Boutte-is seen as divine grace. Sonny works fast on his One Way Road to Heaven church, knowing full well (as we do) there will be an ominous knock on the door. At that moment, his past will catch up with him.

As a man caught between the darkness of doubt and the bliss of belief, Duvall is a rapture unto himself. If you want to sample the sheer bouquet of great acting, you could get drunk on this movie.

"I may be on Satan's hit list," he intones at a passionate revival meeting, "but I'm on Jesus's mailing list . . . We got Holy Ghost power!"

Later, when he feels cast out by his god, he has an active conversation with the supreme being. "What should I do?" he bellows heavenward. "You tell me. I've always called you Jesus. You've always called me Sonny. This is Sonny talking now!"

The movie, which Duvall, produced, wrote and directed, marks his third directorial effort, after "We're not the Jet Set," about rodeos, and "Angelo, My Love," an underrated picture about a gypsy boy who bypasses his childhood with depressing velocity. "The Apostle" reflects the same documentary atmosphere of the first two films, and a sense of unharnessed realism. Duvall, not surprisingly for an actor-turned-director, gives everyone generous breathing room.

Without exception, they respond. Fawcett, Beasley, Rick Dial (a Louisiana radio station owner who broadcasts Sonny's impassioned sermons), Billy Bob Thornton (a troublemaker in need of salvation), Miranda Richardson (a potential new love for Sonny) are outstanding. So is June Carter Cash as Sonny's mother. While Sonny screams at the Lord upstairs, she picks up a ringing phone. A neighbor is complaining about the noise. "That is my son," she replies. "I tell you, ever since he was a little-bitty boy, sometimes he talks to the lord and sometimes he yells at the lord. And tonight he just happens to be yelling at him." She hangs up, then bursts into laughter.    

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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