Before viewing this film, I thought I had as clear of an understanding of the term “apostle” as anyone would need. But after hearing the word repeated so many times in such short succession (the film’s main character, played by Robert Duvall, adopts the name “The Apostle EF” when he goes on the lam), I got a little curious about it and decided to go beyond my working definition to its technical meaning. According to its entry in the Internet’s default encyclopedia these days, the word “apostle” is derived from a classical Greek term that can be accurately translated into English as “emissary” – one who is sent away. In the context of early Christianity, when the Disciples became Apostles, they were sent away to found churches. Sonny Dewey/The Apostle EF’s self-appointed mission to start a church is therefore consistent with his chosen label.
Now that I’ve gotten that bit of explanation out of the way, I’m going to take a moment to talk about my take on religion. Remember how I said a few reviews back that I’m a pacifist who loves to watch war movies? I’m also an atheist who loves to examine religion. The way I see it, religion serves the same purpose in life as the magic feather that gives Dumbo the confidence to fly. I’m not saying this to trivialize religion; goodness knows how much blood has been shed in its name, I would never want to mock the pain of its victims. I’m saying this because I think it’s an accurate description of religion’s psychological function. When inspired by religious fervor, people easily become capable of doing things that would otherwise be monumentally difficult for them to risk doing. Some of those things are very beautiful. Others are very ugly. I believe that any of them would be possible without religion, just as Dumbo eventually learned to believe in himself and fly without the feather. But sometimes it’s easier to pretend the finger puppet you’re talking to really is alive than to admit with embarrassment that, as a fully-grown adult, you’re talking to an imaginary friend.
This is the perspective that I brought with me to the table when I sat down to watch The Apostle.
Plot (warning: this section contains spoilers)
The film begins in Texas, with Pastor Dewey’s marriage in a tailspin. It’s not long before we learn that he has committed adultery in the past and that his wife is currently having an affair with the church’s Youth Minister. Shortly after his wife requests a divorce, Pastor Dewey learns that he has been voted out of the church that he founded. Confronted with losing both his wife and his church, Dewey attacks the Youth Minister with a baseball bat. Realizing that he may have killed the man, Dewey flees town. Trusting in God and his talent (Dewey started preaching at the tender age of twelve), he settles in a small town across the state line in Louisiana and tries to start a new church under an assumed name. But fortunately for gullible country folk everywhere, the law is only a few steps behind him, and when the wife he has abandoned hears his voice on a radio broadcast, his days as an apostle are numbered.
I’ve never lived in a one-horse town like the one Dewey chooses to manipulate, so I’m not sure whether he could really get away with his reinvention of himself as easily as the film portrays. Given my understanding of human nature, though, I wouldn’t be surprised if this sort of thing were possible, especially in the heart of the South, where (again, according to my current understanding, I haven’t dug into any statistics on this) Pentecostal churches are more common than they are here in the Midwest. Dewey/The Apostle EF never labels his faith with any denomination name, so I can’t be sure as to what particular flavor of evangelical Protestantism he practices in the film, but despite the lack of speaking in tongues, my gut instinct is to say Pentecostal (tongues may have been omitted simply to make the film more palatable to a mainstream audience; note that many Pentecostal churches also refer to themselves as “apostolic”). It’s not hard to believe that devoutly religious people would be willing to listen to a man despite his mysterious past if he were to display determination and a gift for spouting off with fervent devotion. The aspect of this story that bothers me the most is Jessie Dewey’s conveniently timed interception of The Apostle’s radio broadcast. It was never established earlier in the story that the Deweys’ radio could pick up a signal local to rural Louisiana, nor is any explanation given for why it would suddenly do so. I smell plot magic.
Acting (warning: this section also contains spoilers)
I don’t care that Robert Duvall got nominated for an Academy Award for his work as the main character; the actor who really displayed his chops in this film was Billy Bob Thornton, who I usually can’t stand. Thornton plays the only man in Louisiana who doesn’t buy The Apostle’s hype… at first. He dares to question The Apostle’s lack of a name (and lack of racism), gets beaten up as a result, and returns to bulldoze The Apostle’s church. But when The Apostle challenges him to run over a Bible in order to put his bulldozing plan into action, Thornton’s character is required to break down and become The Apostle’s follower. Thornton plays this character’s arc with amazing believability. From skepticism and racism through self-doubt into dazed belief, I was able to follow this character’s story with ease and sympathy. It’s unfortunate that Thornton really isn’t seen again after the bulldozer scene. I wanted him to show up again as The Apostle’s most fervent follower. The newly converted are frequently the most zealous practitioners of a faith. Just pay attention to the story of Paul after his transformation from Saul to get what I’m talking about.
I think I know what thematic content I was supposed to take away from The Apostle. It was supposed to be about the tension between grace and grit, or faith and flesh, with grace and faith emerging triumphant. But instead, all I saw was the extent to which religion is theatrical. I found myself wondering, don’t these people ever get tired of repeating the same sentence or phrase five to ten times before they say something new? And then coming back to it again later? The purpose of that sort of ritual is emotional manipulation and activation. There is a mood and feeling that must be maintained, and the rational mind is meant to be disengaged. This is not the sort of spirituality that I want anything to do with. I want to bring my mind with me on my spiritual journey. Watching unsuspecting men, women and children willingly participate in their own manipulation under the misguided notion that they need it in order to be saved from a real and malevolent devil… it frustrated and at times sickened me, and my concerns were never addressed by the film. It seemed like the filmmakers were just as captivated by the siren’s song as the characters they had created.
I watched The Apostle because I had gathered from the back of the box that it was going to be a serious exploration of a preacher’s humanity. I didn’t get too far into the film before I started to feel cheated, and that feeling did not go away despite Thornton’s excellent work. This is a film in love with evangelical Protestantism and anyone who chooses to watch it should have no illusions about what they are getting into. My advice is to skip this one unless you have a particularly deep interest in Hollywood depictions of Pentecostal churches. Or possibly if you find stories about people assuming alternate identities and preying on the kindness of strangers particularly entertaining.
Overall Rating: 2 out of 5.