Euliss F. “Sonny” Dewey is someone we all know.
Oh, we may never have met him. We may never have been in his actual living presence. Still, we know him.
We’ve seen him on television. We’ve read about him in magazines. We’ve seen him drive by in his luxury car with the vanity license plate SONNY, and we’ve paid witness to his testimony about the Lord.
Sonny is a man of the Word. He’s a roof-raising, hell-and-damnation Pentecostal preacher who has walked both sides of the road. He sermonizes so knowingly about sin because he speaks from experience.
As played by Robert Duvall in the movie “The Apostle,” a film the Oscar-winning actor also wrote and directed, Sonny can’t help but get drawn over to the dark side.
His redemption is that he usually finds his way back, managing to bring a batch of converts with him.
Yet such regular sinning is bound to catch up with him, in this life if not the next. And when it does, when his wife (Farrah Fawcett) throws him out and takes over his congregation - the Texas-based Temple of the New Living God - Sonny is struck to his very soul.
And what does a man like Sonny do when he has been struck? Unlike the lamb of God to whom he professes undying faith, Sonny tends to strike back. In Duvall’s mind, that act of rage is what leads both to Sonny’s ultimate downfall and quest for redemption.
That attempt at redemption begins as a sojourn, which takes him from Texas to Louisiana. It involves him sloughing off as much of his old life as possible before adopting a new identity. Now calling himself the Apostle E.F., he attempts once again to bring people the Word as he understands it, as he feels it, before time runs out.
Duvall’s story is not a new one. The Bible itself is filled with studies of men tempted into sin whose struggle for forgiveness becomes a moral lesson. Yet it is to his credit on all three fronts - writer, director and actor - that “The Apostle” seems as fresh as a biblical parable told to a kindergartner.
While the 148-minute version that played last October at the New York Film Festival seemed to drag, Duvall has trimmed his film down to a more manageable 133 minutes. Those cuts may make some of of more unlikely sequences, such as a bulldozer scene featuring Billy Bob Thornton, a little more believable.
But even the longer version featured some brilliant filmmaking. The astonishing first 15 minutes, for example, gives us all we need to know about Sonny’s commitment to his faith, about his willingness to take on anyone or anything to accomplish his goals and about the self-confidence he has that is little more than hubris unmasked.
Duvall, already an Oscar-winner for 1983’s “Tender Mercies,” has been nominated as Best Actor again for his portrayal of Sonny. He is aided by some pretty good supporting performances, including Fawcett as his long-suffering wife, Miranda Richardson as the woman whose charms remind Sonny (and us) of his inherent weakness and by any number of non-actors whose very presence helps the film achieve its overwhelming sense of authenticity.
Ultimately, however, “The Apostle” belongs to Duvall alone. It is that rare creation - a film that manages to be a single-minded creation by one very talented man without being reduced to a vanity production.
For that, let us all give thanks.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo
MEMO: This sidebar appeared with the story: “THE APOSTLE” ***-1/2 Locations: Lincoln Heights Cinema Art Credits: Written and directed by Robert Duvall, starring Robert Duvall, Farrah Fawcett, Billy Bob Thornton, Miranda Richardson, John Beasley, Rick Dial, June Carter Cash Running time: 2:13 Rating: PG-13
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