Louis Proyect: The Unrepentant Marxist

December 25, 2004

The Apostle

Filed under: Uncategorized — louisproyect @ 1:41 pm

Posted to www.marxmail.org on December 25, 2004

How appropriate to be writing a review of a film like “The Apostle” on the birthday of the god his followers celebrate. Although Mel Gibson’s “Passion” comes to mind immediately when you think of Hollywood stars bankrolling movies about Christ or Christianity, Robert Duvall took a similar risk in 1997. Unlike Gibson, Duvall is far less interested in proselytizing for a particular religious point of view than in understanding the religious mindset. Written and directed by Duvall and featuring him in the role of the Pentecostal preacher Euliss “Sonny” Dewey, “The Apostle” defies easy interpretations–including from the left.

Sonny Dewey’s Forth Worth church has lots of black parishioners who respond enthusiastically to the ecstatic sermons he belts out while strutting around the tabernacle like James Brown. In the opening scenes we learn that Dewey developed an affinity for the passionate and extroverted style of black preachers while in the company of his black nanny as a young boy.

It should come as no surprise that Sonny has trouble warding off Satan, no matter how many times he has ordered him to get behind. When his wife (Farah Fawcett) tires of his philandering and boozing, he seems incapable of change. Instead of admitting his guilt, he implores her to get down on her knees with him and pray to Jesus in order to rekindle their marriage. She will have none of this, since she has obviously been through this with him too many times in the past.

It turns out that she has already developed a relationship with the youth minister in Sonny’s church and has also convinced the executive committee of the church to fire him. Driven to a blind rage, Sonny crowns the man with a baseball bat at his son’s little league game to the horror of congregation members in the bleachers and his son and daughter whom he calls his “beauties.”

Sonny takes it on the lam from Fort Worth. The only people he trusts at this point are his best friend Joe, whom he saved from a life of booze and promiscuity, and his pious mother. The two are played respectively and more than capably by country singing star Billy Joe Shavers and June Carter Cash, the renowned country singer and late wife of the late, great Johnny Cash.

One of the more captivating moments of this odd but captivating film is June Carter Nash singing a hymn along with Sonny as they drive along a Texas road moments after stopping by the wreckage of a huge, multiple car collision. Sonny takes his bible under his arm and goes to a crumpled car off the side of the road, where he discovers the injured occupants just moments away from death–a teenage boy and girl. Sonny implores them to accept Jesus as their savior so that they can live in bliss for all eternity in heaven with the angels. A highway patrolman shooing Sonny away asks him if preaching does any good. Duvall answers that he would prefer to die that day in god’s good graces than to live for a hundred years in sin.

Sonny leaves everything behind him in Fort Worth and resurfaces as “The Apostle E. F.” in a tiny, impoverished Louisiana town where he attempts with some success to launch a Pentecostal church that attracts poor and African-American worshippers (played mostly to great effect by non-professionals.) Without giving away too much, we can say that he finds redemption here. When a local racist played by Billy Bob Thornton stages an assault on the church, Sonny fends him off at first with his fists and then with prayers. It is a credit to Duvall’s acting and writing skills that we begin to regard Sonny as a kind of hero, especially in light of our wariness about Bible Belt values raised to higher levels after the 2004 elections no doubt.

“The Apostle” generated some expected responses from the left when it came out. The World Socialist Website wrote:

“A film with evangelism as its subject, one would think, ought to attempt to tell its audience something about the source of the attraction of this sort of religious activity for a section of the American population. Is it not the case that poor and oppressed people often turn to this brand of religion–with all its musical and theatrical trappings–in a desperate search for answers to life’s problems, both material and spiritual? The Apostle tells us next to nothing about the basis of fundamentalism’s appeal, nor does it even pose the question.”

Full: http://wsws.org/arts/1998/mar1998/apos-m24.shtml

On the other hand, Jonathan Rosenbaum, a highly respected left-leaning film reviewer from Alabama originally, wrote:

“By refusing to buy into the Elmer Gantry stereotype, which suggests that every fundamentalist preacher who shows signs of being a scoundrel is also a hypocrite, Duvall’s movie throws us into a subculture of devout belief without the sort of moral signposts that many of us city slickers have grown to depend on defensively and as a matter of automatic reflex. Sonny, Duvall’s troubled and troubling preacher, may be a warped creature who lies to himself, but on the basis of everything we see and hear, he believes deeply in saving souls. And by making all the church services interracial, Duvall complicates our responses still further, especially if we stereotype most white fundamentalists as racists. (Or indulge in statistical guesswork, as Amy Taubin did in the Village Voice when she tried to prove that the film is racist. I would claim on the basis of my experience as an Alabama native with some background in the civil rights movement that these integrated services are believable; whether they’re typical is, of course, another matter.)”

I agree completely with Rosenbaum. The film forces us to engage with the main character and the world he inhabits without the usual signposts. The fact that Duvall can make the case for Sonny at all shows that he is a skilled artist and writer. Long ago when I took a writing class at NYU, the instructor made a point that has stuck with me over the years. He said that the greatest characters in world literature are villains, but it takes the talents of a great writer to make such characters interesting or even appealing. That is what Robert Duvall has done.

Although I could find no reference to this in reviews of “The Apostle,” it seems that the film it has the greatest affinity for is Billy Bob Thornton’s “Slingblade.” Both films rely heavily on local color and on a grotesque major character capable of acting for good and evil simultaneously.

Furthermore, both films incorporate a kind of bleak humor that I find irresistible. For example, shortly after Sonny takes it on the lam, he persuades an elderly black man to let him stay the night. After setting Sonny up in his daughter’s pup tent on the back lawn (which he calls a mansion on the hill), he goes to bed with a shotgun in his hands. It is Duvall’s way of indicating that ultra-religious people might strike normal people as dangerous.

If nothing else, “The Apostle” is a virtual actor’s workshop. Duvall becomes the character in a way that I have not seen outside of the best performances of Robert DeNiro or Marlon Brando. Duvall spent time in Texas researching his character and steeping himself in the religious community the film depicts.

Duvall got the idea for the film while working in his first film, the 1962 “To Kill a Mockingbird.” (He plays a reclusive neighbor who protects Gregory Peck’s children from a homicidal racist, despite his reputation as a kind of bogeyman himself). Researching his role, Duvall visited a small town in Arkansas where his character was supposed to live and where there was a small Pentecostal church. In a January 25, 1998 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle, Duvall recalled, ”So I went there one night and watched this service. I’d never seen anything like it. It had a lady preacher and then a guy got up with a guitar and preached and sang. And I said, ‘Boy, I want to do something with this someday.'”


  1. America can not be saved if Donald Trump is impeached or even assassinated. The first step of a long journery to save America must begin with the removal of not only the Pres. and VP but the entire Congress and Supreme Court, and, if not every almost every, General Officer and just as importantly those who have controled the press for the past 200 years.. There is only one institution that can do that. Yet the members of that institutional have no desire to do it.
    The rest of us who are not fooled can just sit around and eat bread and watch the circus, and wait for Alien Archeologists.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — February 10, 2017 @ 4:57 pm

  2. Here is my list of Apostoles metaphorically speaking.

    1.) Sun Tzu
    2.) Nicoli Machavelli
    3.) Mary Wollenstonecroft
    4.) Thomas Paine
    5.) Thomas Maltus
    6.) Karl Marx
    7.) John Ruskin
    8.) Charles Darwin
    9.) Sigmund Freud
    10.) Albert Einstein
    11.) Niels Bohr
    12.) Nick Bostrum

    It is not my position that everything that any of these individuals say is correct. It is my position that each person on this list helps mankind understand something that is very important.

    Comment by Curt Kastens — February 10, 2017 @ 5:07 pm

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