Film Review: The Apostle

Just what is an apostle, anyway?
Just what is an apostle, anyway?

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)

Sonny Dewey has a short temper.
Sonny Dewey has a short temper.

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)

Just a country boy with a bulldozer who wants to be Saved.
Just a country boy with a bulldozer who wants to be Saved.

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.

Themes

And just how does submerging in muddy water provide redemption?
And just how does submerging in muddy water provide redemption?

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.

One thought on “Film Review: The Apostle

  1. “Sometimes, at church, I think of the congregation praying in unison and think “To an outside observer, this might seem awfully cultlike and creepy.”

    Well, if you’re praying in a church to any given thing, that IS a cult. Whether or not it’s a creepy one, rather than an accepted religious group, is all circumstance to the viewer.”
    – A pair of commentors on the (excellent, though thoroughly horror-slanted as well as character-based) webcomic Broodhollow

    First things first, you’re spot-on with the definition of Apostle. It’s often conflated with the famous Twelve (plus or minus one to five, depending on which traditions and apocrypha you adhere to) Apostles, but a more correct term for them would be the full “Apostles of Christ”…and there we head towards a rabbit hole, so I’ll steer away from etymology and history for now, no matter how fascinating it is.

    I was not impressed with The Apostle.

    I was very impressed with both Thornton and Duvall. They both had challenging roles to play, and they carried them with skill. I find it interesting how similar their character arcs really are when examined. They both go through a transformative experience where they’re confronted and tested; but where Duvall’s character flees consequences with only surface change, Thornton’s character comes out the other end a different man.

    Can a misguided ministry still do good? Can a (seeming) fraud still have a powerful, real effect on the people they touch? That was the most intriguing question I was faced with when watching this film (years ago, now, and you’ve made me want to revisit it), and sadly I feel it’s one of the questions that the film simply doesn’t answer. I might be misremembering, but that’s just more fodder for the rewatching.

    I was very impressed with the cinematography. The effects are excellent. I don’t mean special effects in the “summer blockbuster explosions” sense, those are absent, but the little touches that really immerse you in the film’s environment. I’ve spent some lengths of time in Georgia, Louisiana and eastern Arkansas, and the film made me feel in a lot of ways like I was visiting there again. I’ve never lived there longer than a few weeks to a month, so it might be different for a long-term resident, but it’s a lovingly filmed, carefully constructed piece, and I feel that pays off.

    I was very impressed that the film neither condemned nor praised Christianity, or organized religion as a whole. I admit bias here; my childhood was spent in an evangelical Christian church, and a large part of my media consumption was “Christian Entertainment”, where the quality of the content was secondary to the message, the scripting, performance, production value and everything related was of varying (though often amateur or poor) quality but the messages were hammered home with the force of a pneumatic piledriver. It could be that it actually does sing the praises of the church, but in a much more subtle way than I’m prepared to see.

    But I was not impressed with The Apostle. I wanted to be. I’m someone who isn’t traditionally religious; I believe that organized formal constructs have more of a social/community, emotional, and yes, ritual value than an intrinsic spiritual one. But I am someone who is deeply faithful, and the struggle between my hard-fought faith and the “formal” church is something that’s caused me a lot of personal pain, and when I first watched The Apostle, I thought it was going to address that. When we saw Thornton’s character arc, I felt it had the chance to. But the film not only didn’t really come through there, it never seemed to be sure what kind of story it wanted to tell.

    Between the indecision and contrivances, I really have to agree with your final score. It’s a beautifully shot film, with careful attention to cultural and subcultural details, and some powerful performances, but I just wasn’t very impressed in the end with it.

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