27 December 2001 | lwkloth
A story of spiritual struggle
In order to fully appreciate "The Apostle" it might help to have some experience with southern Pentecostal culture. I do, and was completely taken in by the film. My wife, on the other hand, doesn't have that experience and understands neither the film nor my fondness for it. But I think that, if one is not distracted or confused or simply put off by the loud, emotional, sometimes corny religiosity portrayed here, one can see a strong, compelling story of a seriously, ultimately fatally flawed man whose faith in God and in God's mission for him reaches to his very core.
On the surface, one can view Sonny Dewey as just another example of a certain type of religious fraud: the backslapping, perpetually-grinning, wisecracking good old boy who uses religion and exploits his flock for his own selfish ends. He looks like someone who doesn't practice what he preaches. He womanizes, he's not above taking a snort from this pocket flask, he has a troubled marriage and we get the hint that he is the source of more than his share of the trouble, even to the extent of driving his wife into the arms of another man. He seems to be just another Elmer Gantry or, to pick from the real world, he's just like one of the fallen televangelists of recent years. But just when you're comfortable with that judgment of him, Sonny proves you wrong. He admits to his faults, some more freely than others. But he makes no excuses for them and, in the end, he knows that he is going to pay for them.
What really draws me into the film, and what really makes Sonny interesting for me, is the way Duvall has made him such a complex character. He's a bad guy and a good guy. He is darkness and he is light. He is sometimes endearing and other times someone you really don't feel comfortable trusting. But by creating this ambiguity, Duvall does a service not only to the way religious leaders are characterized in film, he also pays homage to core religious issues. By diving into the murky waters of Sonny's soul, Duvall goes into territory known to any seriously religious person. As much as you might want things to be black and white, a good portion of the time you're being pulled back into the shadows: there are good intentions and evil deeds; there are selfless aspirations and appetites to be fed. Sometimes you swing wildly from one side to the other. Sometimes you are on an even keel. Sometimes you're not sure.
Faith and work determine how such a struggle will turn out. Sonny is energized by both. He believes in what he is doing. He believes that God has given him a mission and he is determined to accomplish it, even in spite of himself. While it might be tempting to make a stark contrast between the message Sonny preaches and the actions he has done that are contrary to it, one must always remember that a good preacher always preaches to himself as well as his congregation. But some of the more revealing moments of the film are not when Sonny is in front of a congregation, or even with other people generally, but when he is alone with God: ranting at God in anger; dedicating himself to God in the moment that he becomes the Apostle; the soul-searching moments when he forgives his wife and resigns himself to his fate.
The no-punches-pulled realness of Sonny's struggle is a refreshing departure from the usual film portrayals of religious figures: plaster saint, con-man, one-dimensional milquetoast. But it also brings to the forefront the question of whether Sonny, or any of us, can be used for divine purpose.
"The Apostle" is beautifully filmed and captures well a portion of the rural South: you can almost feel the humidity and smell the swampwater. And while the well-known actors in the film (Farrah Fawcett, Billy Bob Thornton, Miranda Richardson) all turn in fine performances, it is the unknowns --the church members and townfolk -- that really give the film an added authenticity.