THE ASTONISHING ROBERT DUVALL

The next post will be on or before Wednesday 7th November

THE ASTONISHING ROBERT DUVALL

Anyone who has watched enough TV documentaries or  sultry atmospheric movies set in the US Deep South will be aware of the kind of intense devotional fervour witnessed in Black American  Pentecostal churches, the kind of place where the (usually male) preacher is right there with the congregation in the thick of it, not at a polite rhetorical distance as witnessed in White Anglican C of E where the dog collar alone is enough to mark our the long established demarcations. Because the gospel singing in these places is regularly of a high artistic order, normally cynical secular liberals will often give these devotees the benefit of the doubt, and generously refrain from autopilot derision. What characterises those black churches is that the worship is one of often feverish adoration, involving staccato and sustained repetition of key phrases like Praise The Lord, Say No To The Devil, I Full of Holy Ghost Power and so on. To put things in  a comprehensive spiritual context, a similar tradition of intoxicating repetitive chant in Classical Hinduism is called Bhakti or Devotion and has an honourable history going back to the great Bengali Vaishnavite prophet Chaitanya (1486-1534). The same thing was observable more entertainingly (for some) at its peak in the 1970s, in the joyous dancing and mantra repetition of the Hare Krishna devotees (white British as a rule and originally called perhaps Derek or Deirdre) outside of sundry Central London Tube stations.

At the start of the 1997 The Apostle, directed by and starring celebrity actor Robert Duvall (born 1931) as charismatic preacher Sonny, there is a flashback to 1939 when as a little white boy of about 4, he is brought into a Black Pentecostal church somewhere in rural Texas, his hand clutched by his stout old family servant. The sumptuously dressed black preacher has a gorgeous (and rather unlikely in 1939) perfectly tailored white suit. He is in the thick of his congregation and is dancing on the spot in his spiritual excitement as he roars out his devotion to the Lord in the form of saying the same brief imperative or assertion over and over again until he reaches a crescendo. Cue then many of the women worshippers falling into something close to a deep hypnotic trance as they repeat all he said, ever louder and ever more exultant. Convincingly then, by the age of 12, the boy Sonny (full name, and this is important, Euliss F Dewey) has already felt himself to be saved for Jesus and he becomes a roaring boy preacher whose very youth and innocence make him all the more charismatic and adorable to the surrounding congregation, most of them black, even in segregated 1940s Texas…

We now switch to the present day, the mid 90s, where Sonny aged about 60 is in something of a crisis. His wife Jessie, also a deeply religious woman is played by the late great Farrah Fawcett (1947-2009) a gifted actress who here has an unconvincing and disappointing part for she patently is obliged to underact and has no significant speeches nor offers any focused dramatic power of note. What makes this film a flawed masterpiece is that essentially it is a one-man film, for it is the director Duvall who we are watching from start to finish, and it is almost as if he has forgotten to ensure the rest of the cast give all they have got. Meanwhile Jessie has successfully agitated within their church to have her husband removed from the governing committee on account of his bullying if genial tyranny and volatile character. For the same reason she has started an adulterous affair with a younger and very religious man called Horace (played by Todd Allen) though she assures angry Sonny there will be no problem with access to their young children. At one point, Sonny tries to intimidate her into reconciliation with an ugly feigned violence which he then disowns with his always charming chuckles. Very obviously this devout Pentecostal is capable of being a very unpleasant man. One minute he is tenderly hugging his children and jovially testing them with the sequence of the books in the Old Testament (1 Chronicles, 2 Chronicles, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther, Job!) the next minute he turns up in his car at the Little League baseball game where they are playing, having taken a sly slug from a bottle of bourbon.  He is in an evil mood and grabs both Jessie and the kids and tries to drag them who knows where. The spectators try to stop it and Horace his rival comes and gently dissuades him, whereupon the man of God grabs a baseball bat and swipes him viciously across the skull. To everyone’s horror Horace collapses into a coma from which he never surfaces. Seemingly unrepentant Sonny flees the scene to inform a buddy called Joe (country singer Billy Joe Shaver, born 1939) of what he has done and adds that he gave him what he was due. Joe who Sonny had converted and rescued from the gutter, vows to keep him informed of what happens with Horace and the police, whereupon Sonny drives off in the pouring rain as a resolute fugitive.

Soon he is inspired to ditch the car in a deep river and thereafter he stumbles into a nearby wood where like something out of the Southern gothic of Flannery O’ Connor he bumps into an old one-legged black man who staggers about on crutches and is currently fishing for catfish using a hickory stick as a rod.  The old man accepts Sonny’s edited tale that he is obliged under the Lord’s guidance to seek out a new life, and lets him stay in his grandkids’ playtent outside his tumbling shack that is in the middle of the woods.  Sonny then grills him as to whether he knows of a famous black preacher called Brother Blackwell, and sure enough the angler directs him to a small town in Louisiana. After rebaptising himself as a new man, EF, in the river where the old man fishes, Sonny eventually arrives at Blackwell’s town by bus. There like the remarkably adaptable opportunist he is, he soon befriends a shy white mechanic called Sam (played by Walton Goggins, born 1971, best known for the TV series Justified) as he helps him to sort out a car engine that has Sam flummoxed. Part of Sonny’s magnetic charisma is that he is one of those men who can never be defeated, for he can turn his hand to anything, and from a window above, the manager of a Gospel radio station who also owns the garage shouts down and offers him work as a mechanic. Sam likewise offers the impressive stranger free lodgings in a spacious homestead left him by rich relatives. It is then time to seek out Brother Blackwell, played very ably by John Beasley (born 1943) familiar from the CSI TV series. Blackwell has retired from preaching and when Sonny asks him can he therefore take over his spiritual role and his vacated church, though friendly, the older man challenges him sharply:

“And why should I trust you? Coming out of nowhere like you are? Tell me that? Now I am going to be watching you for a while… and God is going to be watching you too.”

Sonny grins and fearlessly proves his mettle by taking on an extra job to fund the renovation of Blackwell’s old shack of a church, stuck out in the remote countryside. He begins evening shifts in a burger bar as well as being a mechanic during the day, and in his spare time and boundlessly energetic, he has Sam, Blackwell and numerous small children helping with the refurbishment (the kids hilariously do all the inside repainting in a holy white). Soon the church is ready and tireless Sonny even acquires and mends an old red bus which he uses to pick up the worshippers from distant farms. All the small congregation bar Sam are black countryfolk and include an overweight lady in her Sunday best, and her 2 little boys in natty suits both carrying miniature guitars which they cannot play. Once ensconced in his new church Sonny stomps into frenetic preaching in the form of repeating ever louder:

Holy Ghost Power, Holy Ghost Power, WE GOT HOLY GHOST POWER!

After ten minutes of which he has the women at the front going into rapturous trances, and Brother Blackwell suddenly looking at him with a proprietorial admiration. All would seem to be going to plan but the trouble with being a charismatic Pentecostal preacher, is that you can also forfeit commonsense and believe yourself to be invulnerable. Sonny then makes a serious error by deciding to broadcast on the Gospel radio station above the garage where he works. The portly bespectacled station manager is infinitely sympathetic, but shrewdly asks for money up front as air time has to be paid for, is not free. That means Sonny has to work all the harder to afford both the church and the radio access, and as a third and you might say more intelligibly human factor, all of a sudden potential romance steps into his fugitive existence when the beautiful radio station secretary, Tootsie, played by UK actress Miranda Richardson (born 1958) enters his life. There is a problem though, which she is separated not divorced from her husband, so that when Sonny wines and dines her on a Louisiana riverboat and later attempts to get her into bed, she gently refuses him. As a man of God, he ought to accept this patient restraint of course, but Sonny is human all too human, and again oddly unrepentant about his flaws and failures whether they be that of would be fornicator or first-degree murderer. The real import of the radio broadcasts though, in terms of cinematic power, is Duvall’s astonishing acting when he goes into full Pentecostal frenzy on air, so much so that the manager confides to him that all the listeners out there, unless they know otherwise, assume he must be black, he cannot possibly be a white preacher.

A strange and unsatisfactory set piece happens next, when a disgruntled young white man in a baseball cap enters one of Sonny’s services and demands to know who EF is and what this service is all about. The stranger is played by the hugely talented Coen Bros regular Billy Bob Thornton (born 1955) who here like Farrah Fawcett is not being pushed to his considerable limits. This nuisance rudely interrupts the service and after his interrogation, then refusing to join in the worship, he adds as a calm aside:

“I ain’t going to be in here among a load of niggers.”

When this disturbing pest refuses to go away, ever versatile Sonny takes off his jacket, rolls up his sleeves, and beats him up very effectively outside the church. The troublemaker then slopes off threatening appropriate vengeance, and when Sonny next hosts a church tea party to raise necessary funds, Billy Bob Thornton turns up with a bulldozer and threatens to demolish the church. Sonny, who let us not forget is an unrepentant murderer, urges him to desist, and then is inspired to lay an open Bible across his path. This stops the crazy man in his tracks, and when he gets down to remove the Bible, he suddenly goes into spiritual crisis, and lo and behold is on the spot converted by the man he hates, and who will not explain himself, namely EF. The trouble with this set piece is that there is nil background explanation as to why Billy Bob is as he is, and indeed he is listed in the credits merely as Troublemaker. Once again and as with Farrah Fawcett and even Miranda Richardson, Duvall is underusing these considerable talents while making massive demands on himself as the central unarguably towering character.

Nemesis comes when Jessie at home with her children in Texas picks up on her radio a stray Gospel station and hears the startling initials EF (as in Euliss F Dewey) and an appalling and all too familiar voice preaching at full throttle the indestructible Word. She alerts the Texas police and they notify their Louisiana colleagues, and soon a lone sheriff walks into the chapel shack and patiently waits for it to end before arresting EF for first degree murder. Sonny takes a good half hour to complete unfinished business including movingly bringing timid, weeping, white mechanic bachelor Sam to the Lord. He then with a spring in his step goes out and accepts the handcuffs and true to form guys and jokes with the sheriffs who humbly address him as sir. The end of the film has him leading a Texas chain gang in devotional chants and there is Sonny still smiling, perennially victorious, and also of course still infantilised and arguably half mad.

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