Sunday, April 12, 2015

Robert Duvall | The Apostle

yellin’ at the lord

by Douglas Messerli

Robert Duvall (writer and director) The Apostle / 1997

What’s a popular Pentecostal preacher like Sonny Dewey (Robert Duvall) to do when his beloved wife, Jessie (Farrah Fawcett) becomes romantically involved with another man? And then how is expected to behave when she uses his own churches bylaws to oust him from his ministry? Euliss F “Sonny” Dewey, growing up in Texas has been indoctrinated into church theology by his mother (June Carter Cash) at the early age of 10, and he lives his religion the way many in the South still do today, like it was equivalent to breathing and out. 

Sonny, moreover, is a gifted religious “performer,” a natural in the pulpit with a way of embracing each member of his congregation, no matter what be their racial background, as if each was a treasured friend. Yet like many in his environment where guns and manhood are insistently conjoined, he is a violent being within, particularly when it comes to the opposite sex. After a night of “yellin’ at the Lord,” the former preacher gets drunk, visits his sons’ Little League baseball game, and, in a moment of pure passion, picks up a baseball bat and hits his wife’s lover, the Little League coach, over the head, putting him into a coma from which later dies.

      Sonny runs, driving his car into a lake and re-baptizing himself as “The Apostle E. F” (apparently in honor of the first to initials of his given name), and taking up a new life in a small bayou community in Louisiana. He begins as a mechanic and works at another job as a kitchen cook. But his real calling remains, as he puts it again and again throughout this sensitive and honest picture, in the hands of God. Hearing of a local preacher, Brother C. Charles Blackwell (John Beasley) who has retired from a now-closed country church, Sonny insinuates himself, convincing the former preacher to return to work as co-pastor of his former church Sonny renames “The One-Way Road to Heaven.”

     Through Duvall’s consummate acting and writing we perceive that Sonny is the real thing, but like many a cinematic charlatan such as Elmer Gantry, Marjoe, and others, he also knows how to establish and promote his Godly credentials, paying to have his sermons broadcast on a local radio station and purchasing and fixing up a broken-down bus so that he might promise prospective parishioners that he will personally drive them to church on Sundays. At the radio station he also meets a beautiful studio receptionist, Toosie (Miranda Richardson) who is having difficulties with her husband, and asks her out for a date.
     You can almost smell Sonny’s lust, in the sweaty Bayou evening, for female flesh, but, once again, Duvall gently pinpoints the problems of Sonny’s culture as the man tries to make clear his desires without scarring the woman off. Like a clumsy schoolboy he asks her outright “how he’s doing”; after correcting him for his forwardness, she assures him that she comprehends his emotions. Yet she, herself remains standoffish and uncommitted and, a short while later, when Sonny observes that she has possibly reconciled with her husband by joining him and her children at a dinner in the restaurant where Sonny works, the apostle again reacts impetuously, storming out of this place of employment, insisting he will never return.

     Fortunately, his uncontrollable fits of behavior have been converted into impassioned performances of word, song, and dance within his personal tabernacle, which wins him converts within weeks. He has focused his impetuous anger into a refined give-and-take of spiritual ecstasy which uplifts and excites even the most stolid of doubters, including a racist determined to destroy his re-constructed, bi-racial temple of God.

     But even within his clearly committed religious fervor, Sonny evidently sees no contradiction in his activities in a radio campaign wherein he promises to personally bless the scarves—which customers can put under their pillows to “sleep more peacefully at night”—he sells to support his religious activities and, likely, his daily survival. This believer clearly can see no gap between his Godly belief and old-fashioned American commercialism. For Sonny, in other words, truth and mendacity, believing and sinning are part of the same continuum, like yelling at Jesus. Faith is an utterly human thing.

     And it is his character’s humanity, finally, that helps to make Duvall’s film so poignant and original. If Sonny is momentarily larger than life, he is also a small, tired, and lonely man unable to escape his own human failings. His success in the Bayou, broadcast across the region through the radio, helps his wife and police to track him down, and by film’s end a battalion of cops has gathered round his proud little Kingdom to take him away to prison. Finally faced with the inevitable, Sonny preaches up a gentle storm of emotional ravage, a belief whipped up the chaos of the world around him, which simultaneously helps to establish actor and writer Duvall as an astonishing artist. 
     In the final scene, we observe Sonny at work on the chain gang whose members have apparently already been converted by the charismatic apostle, as they perform their assigned duties in time to the rhythmic antiphon of spiritual music and Black dialogic rhetoric.

Los Angeles, April 12, 2016

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