Sonny sees a car crash not as a tragedy but as an opportunity. He’s not a lawyer, though; he’s a preacher.
When we first meet Sonny, he is fortunate enough to come upon an accident just after it happened. He grabs a Bible and runs to one of the cars. Sonny is able to comfort the semi-conscious, bleeding occupant, and save his soul before the cops chase him off.
Thus opens The Apostle, Robert Duvall’s directing debut. Duvall also stars, playing Sonny, a traveling Alabama preacher. Sonny is on the road so much that his family is breaking up. His wife Jessie (Farrah Fawcett) has started seeing another man, and she’s ready for divorce. On top of that, she manages to vote Sonny out of the church that he himself founded.
Sonny still loves his wife and kids, so when Jessie’s lover has the audacity to stand between him and his own children, Sonny snaps. He beats the other man to death with a softball bat. (In a culturally revealing echo from the beginning of the film, the bystanders do not administer CPR to the dying man, they collectively pray over him.)
Sonny isn’t stupid. He knows he lost his head and that he was terribly wrong. But rather than stay in his own forsaken community and face the music, Sonny ditches his car, his ID, and his name. He becomes “The Apostle E.F.” and sets off on foot looking for a sign from the Lord.
He is led to a small town where he hooks up with the local preacher to found a new church.
That’s it. That’s the plot. If that summary makes it sound a little open-ended, it is. Plotwise, a lot happens in the first third of the movie, and then the pace changes drastically. When Sonny/E.F. settles in to his newly adopted home town, the slow process of building a church begins. The last two-thirds of the movie is relatively uneventful, giving the movie an aimless, endless quality.
When it comes time for the movie to end (about 20-30 minutes too late), it comes from out of the blue. In fact, in an otherwise “realistic” film, it takes a miracle (a kitchen radio changes stations unexpectedly) to bring about the movie’s conclusion. It’s as though Duvall knows only how to direct actors, and not how to handle a plot.
Nevertheless, the movie has a lot going for it. Robert Duvall (the actor) is very good in this film. In fact, it may be his best acting ever. He feels natural in the role. When he’s preaching, he is so caught up in the emotion and the words, it’s as if Duvall really is preaching and not acting. Even when he’s not preaching, Duvall captures the quirks and mannerisms of a plain, friendly, extroverted man; the type of man that everyone likes and nobody knows.
Sonny has a healthy outlook for a movie character — for anyone — to have. He’s not in his job for the money, he’s in it because he loves it. Sonny knows his faults and prays forgiveness for his sins, but he doesn’t dwell on them. He simply lives each day as the Good Lord gives it to him.
Also, in a refreshing twist, the film deals with religion without a hint of cynicism or hypocrisy. One could infer some irony in that this preacher has committed murder and fled the crime, but Sonny doesn’t preach perfection, he preaches repentance and salvation as an alternative to eternal damnation. Given his character and the approach of the film, there is nothing hypocritical in Sonny’s chosen path.
I can appreciate everything that was right in the movie, but unfortunately, the whole experience didn’t measure up. In spite of the interesting characters and fresh look at southern religion, my overall impression is that the movie was aimless and too long. That’s too bad because I was really rooting for Duvall. He is a good actor, and he’s a good actor’s director, but it seems he’s just not cut out for pulling a film together.