The Apostle is a film which, no matter how ignorant you're determined to be, does make you think. It makes you wonder: ""Why am I interested in the story of a short-fused religious fanatic who wants to renovate a church in some Southern-state backwater?""
The answer can only be found by looking at writer/director/producer/ financier Robert Duvall's excellent performance, which more than deserved its Oscar nomination. In Sonny Dewey, the veteran actor has created a complex, ambiguous character who hooks your sympathy solely through the realisation of his flaws: this is no holier-than-thou preacher. His minister is violent, aggressive, intrusive and a little frightening (especially when he's shouting about "Holy Ghost explosions" going off in his soul). However, he's also endearingly eccentric, charismatic and, above all, passionate.
Shot in a semi-documentary style, The Apostle plods along at an even pace, offering no highs and no lows, just a level plane of polite fascination with the odd pothole of Christian creepiness. If you're not a member of the flock, then the many preaching scenes regress from being mildly interesting to dull and overlong. (Yeah, yeah, Sonny, we know you think Jesus is great, but can we go home now, please?) They're even at times somewhat disturbing, such as when Duvall holds up a baby and invites everyone to imagine a nail being driven through its palm. Shudder.
Take away Duvall's masterful performance and The Apostle would amount to little more than an over-long episode of Louis Theroux's Weird Weekends - - but without Louis Theroux. It's intriguing, certainly, but a little too strange and short-focused to twang any big multiplex chords.
Duvall's pet project is full of lush, fascinating performances from Richardson, Thornton and of course Duvall, but the subject matter can only draw you in so far. You don't have to be a Jehovah-botherer to enjoy this - - but it might help.