Heaven forbid

The Apostle's road to hell is paved with good intentions

As The Apostle's title character, E.F. "Sonny" Dewey, writer-director Robert Duvall never stops moving and never speaks in a voice lower than a roar. He runs in place, dances when standing still, hollers even when he whispers; he literally vibrates. Sonny's a true tent-revival preacher, spitting brimstone threats and heavenly promises to the hand-clapping believers across the North Texas flatlands. Duvall paints Sonny in broad strokes and subtle colors: You never know if he truly buh-lieves--the man gives a "Thank ya, Jesus" every time he exhales--or if he's merely a hustler trying to con his way into heaven, looking to run past St. Peter dressed in a preacher's borrowed smock. Either way, Sonny gets others to believe: That's his true calling, even if the savior needs saving himself.

Sonny's about as flawed as it gets--a womanizer who cheats on his wife, Jessie (an aging Farrah Fawcett); a murderer who kills her lover, a young minister named Horace (Todd Allen), with a baseball bat in front of a crowd; a coward who refuses to take responsibility for his actions and leaves his mother (June Carter Cash) to die alone in Texas while he flees for the Louisiana border and a chance to disappear. Sonny speaks to God, but he listens to the devil, and it has made him either a very bad man with good intentions or an angel fallen too hard to the ground. Duvall spends two hours trying to decide which--and even he can't figure it out. At best, Sonny's the hooker with a heart of gold; at worst, he's rotten to the very core.

But Duvall loves Sonny, no matter his misdeeds. If he didn't, there'd be nothing in The Apostle to believe in, because there's really not much here. (For his performance, Duvall was awarded the best actor award by the National Society of Film Critics.) Duvall--who financed the $5 million film himself, wrote it with the encouragement of Horton Foote, then cast himself in the title role--has created nothing more than an old-fashioned tale about a man who escapes his wrongdoing to seek redemption in a safe haven where he can save souls, mostly his own, in anonymity. But Sonny never evolves, never changes his standard rant: He keeps spouting on and on about "Holy Roller power" and riding down that road to glory, but his words only grow more hollow the longer he delivers them.

Duvall's film is a literal interpretation of The Apostle's Creed, a centuries-old prayer often recited during baptism; anyone who utters its words--"I believe in God, the Father almighty...I believe in Jesus Christ," and so forth--during baptism is immediately recognized as a Christian. Duvall's inspiration comes from the line that says that after Christ was tortured by Pontius Pilate and crucified, he died and then "descended into Hades" (or "descended to the dead," a slight variation). Some scholars argue that Christ the savior went to hell to preach to the damned; others insist that Christ the mortal descended into Hades to pay for his sins, which he had to do before he became the true Messiah.

Duvall likes it both ways: Sonny delivers the Word to the locals and thinks he must visit hell before ever reaching heaven. Only his hell is a picturesque, multicultural Louisiana town named Bayou Boutte, where black and white children dress in bright colors and sing cheerful songs to Jesus all the livelong day. Duvall's hell, where he ends up after fleeing Texas, looks more like a Cajun Sesame Street, a colorblind fantasyland where abandoned shacks become glorious whitewashed churches overnight; where a stranger can get a radio show in a matter of days; where zydeco bands perform around every corner; and where a man with no money can suddenly come into possession of new suits and a couple of vehicles by working for minimum wage. To top it all off, there's a beautiful, lonely married woman (Miranda Richardson) susceptible to the preacher's oily charms. Sounds like paradise.

But the movie plays like hell: In the end, The Apostle feels like a con, a movie that embraces its contradictions only because it's not smart enough to reconcile them; everything feels complex, but, in fact, it's far too simple. Sonny's really just a bad guy--an egomaniac who loves to hear himself shout, who tortured his wife with his threats and prayers and then killed her lover, and then left his kids and mama in search of selfish salvation. He may truly believe in God, but he really only hides behind religion--sort of like Duvall's rendering of Frank Burns in Robert Altman's M*A*S*H. Still, Duvall wants us to think of Sonny as nothing more than a defective human doing divine work; we're supposed to believe he has the power to heal, even if he can never fix himself.

So he sets it up with one of the most ridiculous moments of religious conversion ever set to film; it makes the overbearing Leap of Faith feel like a documentary. Toward the end of the film, the town's sole racist (a dazed Billy Bob Thornton, billed only as The Troublemaker) comes to knock down Sonny's new church with a bulldozer; he doesn't want a church "full of niggers" in his hometown. But in a matter of mere minutes, Sonny brings him over to the Lord, and not only is the scene so unbelievable, it's downright silly--Sonny stops Thornton by placing his Bible in front of the bulldozer, and Thornton ends up on the ground clutching the Good Book and crying like a baby. "I didn't come here to tear down the church," he whimpers--oh, yes, he did. But Duvall, in such a rush to make us believe in Sonny's healing powers, cheats us out of any honest confrontation: The racist nonbeliever, in the blink of an eye, loves all God's chilluns.

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