Classics never die, but they seldom get replaced. Cinema is populated with enduring, venerated works of art that deservedly adorn list after list, but those lists are rarely updated, and less often expanded to include new, equally worthy entries. Organizations that give out annual awards are constrained not only by the limitations of formatting, but perspective - they can’t anticipate which film will survive the buzz of its initial acclaim or success and become part of the cultural firmament. And then there are just certain films or even genres that too infrequently receive the critical attention they deserve, are too obscure to break through to bigger audiences, or just aren’t taken seriously enough to merit consideration alongside the ones we “all” already know we love or respect. A Case For Greatness, this series, tries to argue for, and to champion, forgotten or underappreciated films in a variety of genres that may be worthy of being called “classics.”
I’m no longer a religious believer in the same way that as an 18-year Californian I’m no longer a resident of the South - I'm acutely aware of its shortcomings but feel oddly compelled to defend it, particularly the further from its influence I stray. Certainly organized religion seems as if it’s created as many problems throughout history as it’s solved, but generally speaking I think that the basic tenets of Christianity can provide a healthy guide on how to treat others and engage with the rest of the world. And a movie like Robert Duvall’s The Apostle, to me, embodies the best aspects of those beliefs, while underscoring the basic humanity of the people trying to live up to them on a daily basis. It’s also a spectacularly well-acted film that, some 22 years after its release, deserves recognition, if not reappraisal.
Duvall wrote, directed and stars in the film, about a charismatic Pentecostal preacher named Euliss F. “Sonny” Dewey who returns from a road trip to discover that his wife, Jessie, is sleeping with a youth minister named Horace (Todd Allen), and to add insult to injury, has conspired to oust him from his position at church. After Jessie rebuffs the possibility of a reconciliation, Sonny searches for answers from God, but in their absence he soon falls into despair and anger, leading to a confrontation at his child’s Little League game where he strikes Horace with a bat and puts him in a coma.
Fleeing Texas, he sinks his car in a lake and throws away anything that can identify him, taking odd jobs and relying upon charity for food and shelter as he re-brands himself “The Apostle E.F.” His path eventually leads to a Louisiana bayou, and more importantly, the doorstep of a retired minister named C. Charles Blackwell (John Beasley) who he convinces to start a new church - from the ground up, one follower at a time. But even as Sonny’s flamboyant style enraptures his flock and uplifts a community in need of spiritual guidance, his past threatens to catch up with him after appearances on a local radio station attract the attention of authorities looking to prosecute him for his crimes.
The film is intriguing even to the secular-minded in its portrayal of Sonny’s faith as this beacon of optimism, an indefatigable reserve of belief that does not overshadow his very human sins and vulnerabilities but instead suggests that they can be overcome, and even redeemed. Duvall is effortlessly mesmerizing in the lead role, and from the first scene, where he intervenes at the site of a violent car crash and offers salvation to two of its victims, the character’s authority - and sincerity - is palpable. Sonny is a guy who acknowledges his shortcomings, and to some extent relishes them; after a racist construction worker (Billy Bob Thornton) shows up at his church one night threatening the congregation, he literally takes the guy out back and beats the shit out of him. But when the man later returns intent on bulldozing the church to the ground, Sonny confronts him not with fists but faith, and converts him to a believer with a remarkable and utterly believable expression of unconditional love.
Early scenes in the film show how Sonny became a preacher at age 12 after being dragged to black churches by the woman who cared for him as a child, and there’s a wonderful undercurrent of inclusivity to his faith that runs through the film - an understated but beautiful reminder how familiarity and interaction with people from different backgrounds produces compassion and understanding. But most vital to the film’s power is the way that Sonny repeatedly demonstrates that he is, irrespective of his position in each of these communities, just a man, and yet aspires, and inspires, those who follow and listen to him by showing them that they are deserving of his love, respect and most of all forgiveness, even if they aren’t sure they’re deserving of God’s.
Duvall is supported by a wonderful ensemble of both established performers - from Fawcett, Beasley and Thornton to Miranda Richardson as a radio station receptionist and June Carter Cash as Sonny’s mother - and then-unknowns like Walton Goggins, playing a young mechanic who becomes his protégé. But as writer, director and star, the film is his show, and he makes the absolute most of its story and its messages, which do not flinch from either the consequences of Sonny’s actions or the suggestion - or maybe more accurately, the belief - that we have the ability to transcend them. Ultimately, The Apostle is a movie about accountability, service, and redemption - shrewdly recognizing that even if you don’t believe in Sonny’s higher power, there’s always one inside us to answer to, and most importantly, to help us become our best selves, even (or especially) when we may not yet be ready to accept responsibility for our worst deeds.