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Robert Duvall has been in some of the greatest movies of our time, but never seems to get the kind of recognition afforded to Jack Nicholson or Robert Redford. Duvall's resume contains some of the greatest movies in history: To Kill a Mockingbird, M*A*S*H, The Godfather and The Godfather II, Apocalypse Now, Network, Tender Mercies, The Natural and Sling Blade. Normally, a list like that would make you a Hollywood legend, but Duvall has never been a megastar. He is a consummate professional, a workingman's actor. Instead of playing Robert Duvall in every movie, he becomes the character. He blends into the work, but would be vitally missed if he were not there.
In stunning contrast to some of his most famous roles, Duvall explodes off the screen in The Apostle. With great skill, Duvall serves as the writer and director as well as playing a difficult character. Duvall portrays Sonny, a flawed southern preacher. Since he was a little boy, Sonny had the gift of preaching the Lord's word. Unfortunately, he is also a deeply flawed man who has cheated on his wife and may have even stolen some money from the church collection plate.
Finally, his wife (Farah Fawcett) tires of Sonny's problems. She takes away everything he holds dear, his children and his church. After being removed as pastor of his small Texas church, Sonny is lost. He turns to alcohol and begs for God to give him a sign telling him what he should do. At his lowest point, Sonny confronts his wife, Jessie, and her new boyfriend. This leads to a struggle where Sonny kills Jessie's boyfriend in a fit of rage.
Sonny realizes what he has done and flees. After communing with the Lord, Sonny realizes that he must right the wrongs he has committed in life. He realizes that he must preach the word of the Lord without straying and committing sin, so he heads to a small Louisiana town to start a new church. Will Sonny be able to bring salvation to this small town? Will he be able to leave his sinful past behind?
There are some great moments in this film. Duvall's performance is legendary. His preaching ability could bring atheists to their feet. He creates a montage of fantastic scenes showing Sonny preaching to many different audiences. In one scene, Sonny and his fellow preachers engage in a preach-off, trading the microphone and compelling each other to new heights. Duvall effectively uses flashbacks to show the life Sonny has led and the events that influenced him. He also creates a beautiful scene with Sonny praying at the crossroads after he has killed his wife's boyfriend and one scene showing the re-birth and baptism of Sonny. We get a good sense of the desperation his character feels after breaking one of the ten commandments.
There are some problems with the movie. When Duvall was writing all those fantastic scenes for himself, he forgot about the rest of his cast. He dominates every scene in the movie. The movie would have benefited from more character development for the secondary characters. These characters could have helped to explain more of Sonny's past and the sins he has committed. Unfortunately, the audience is left to theorize what he has done.
Specifically, two actors put in fine performances, but should have been used more. First, Duvall does not use Billy Bob Thornton in an effective manner. Billy Bob is fantastic in this movie, but serves no purpose. His character has no motivation and we don't know enough about him to understand his anger. He just shows up from time to time with no rhyme or reason.
Farrah Fawcett also does a fine job in the movie. She isn't given much to do, but does a good job playing Sonny's frustrated and fed-up wife.
The Apostle is a great film for actors to study Duvall. He was deservedly nominated for an Oscar and a Screen Actors Guild award. He won best actor from the Independent Spirit Awards, the LA Film Critics Association, and the National Society of Film Critics. The Independent Spirit Awards also rewarded Duvall by naming the film best film of 1997 and picked him as the best director.
The Apostle: B
Written and Directed by Robert Duvall
Sonny .. Robert Duvall
Jessie ... Farrah Fawcett
Toosie.. .. . Miranda Richardson
Horace . Todd Allen
Reverend Blackwell ..... John Beasley
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