'The Apostle': Robert Duvall's Tour de Force

'The Apostle': Robert Duvall's Tour de Force
by L. Brent Bozell III
January 30, 1998

Hollywood's hostility to religion is evidenced by God knows how many movies ridiculing and insulting matters of faith. It's not surprising, then, that Oscar-winning actor Robert Duvall couldn't obtain financing to make his film about a minister's spiritual journey. That theme just doesn't interest Hollywood. But it did interest Duvall, who ponied up $5 million to fund the project. "The Apostle," which he also wrote, directed, and stars in, is a cinematic tour de force. Duvall may be blushing at all the accolades he's receiving from the critics, but he also deserves an expression of gratitude.

As "The Apostle" begins, Duvall's character, Sonny Dewey, has his own Pentecostal church in Fort Worth. Weary of his infidelities, Sonny's wife Jessie leaves him; she and her new beau, Horace (also a minister) win the allegiance of most of his congregation. After losing hope of reconciling either with his family - he has two young children - or his flock, a drunken, enraged Sonny attacks Horace, belting him in the head with a baseball bat and fatally injuring him.

Sonny flees and finds himself seemingly in the middle of nowhere, alongside a river in which he, repentant, rebaptizes himself "The Apostle E.F." When an old, one-legged black man who fishes the river mentions that his first cousin, Charles Blackwell, is a retired minister in Bayou Boutte, Louisiana, E.F. comes to believe he has been called to evangelize that tiny town.

Once in Bayou Boutte, he meets with the Rev. Blackwell, whose poor health forced him to retire, and whose congregation met in a now-dilapidated, vacant building. The reverend agrees to help E.F. refurbish the place, and soon, the new church, called the One-Way Road to Heaven, has a small-but-fervent, mostly black congregation attracted by E.F.'s fiery oratory. But the law finally catches up with him, and as the credits roll, he sits in the back of a police car, a captured fugitive.

In strictly artistic terms, "The Apostle" will hold the attention of the most militant atheist. The dialogue, Duvall's performance, the contributions by the supporting cast - all are superb. But it's the story that counts the most, and three scenes in particular will give you a flavor for this masterpiece.

The first takes place very early in the picture, before Sonny's crime. Driving along, he sees there has been a multi-car accident. He makes his way to one of the cars and finds the driver, a young man, and his wife; both are barely alive and barely conscious. Sonny gently exhorts the man to accept Jesus as his savior: "If you open your heart and let Him come in, He will stand with you whether you [die] or whether you stay here with us." The man nods, and, a tear running down his cheek, says, "Thank you, sir."

Then there's the scene which takes place outside the One-Way Road to Heaven. E.F. confronts a surly redneck who objects to worshiping with "niggers." On an afternoon when the congregation is holding a picnic, the fellow drives a bulldozer toward the small wooden church. E.F. places a Bible in the bulldozer's path and challenges the man to run it over. He can't, and eventually E.F. convinces him that God brought him to the church not so he could destroy it, but so he could be converted - and converted he is, as E.F. whispers tenderly to him, "I was a worse sinner than you were."

And then there's the final scene, in which E.F. is preaching and sees a policeman slip into the back of the church. He knows, as do we, the movie's audience, that he's reached the end of the road. He tells the cop, "We'll be with you in a minute, after the service." For the next sixteen minutes, until E.F. surrenders, we observe a remarkable depiction of spiritual joy, as congregation and minister express their love for their Savior. Watching this, it's easy to forget that E.F. is about to be arrested; so powerful is Duvall's performance that it's easy to believe that E.F. himself momentarily forgets. When the sermon is concluded, E.F. quietly surrenders.

Even if Bayou Boutte and Pentecostalism are remote and unfamiliar, the power of "The Apostle" is such that a skeptic can't marginalize this portrait by distancing himself from the simple, pious people in this film. In Christ, there is no east or west, and in "The Apostle," there is only a superb, universally comprehensible presentation of faith, offered for the viewer's embrace. Well done, Robert Duvall.