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Nashville Scene Washed in the Blood

Robert Duvall's small miracle.

By Jim Ridley and Donna Bowman

FEBRUARY 9, 1998:  In the opening of Robert Duvall's new film The Apostle, a sedan on a lonesome stretch of blacktop pulls to a halt near a cluster of police cars and onlookers. A wrecked car sits silent in the weeds. The sedan door opens, and a man bounds across the field to the scene of the crash. He peers inside and finds a boy covered in blood. Leaning in, he urges the passenger, Christian or no Christian, to use his dying breath to offer his soul to God. His hand administers comfort; his leg kicks wildly at the state trooper who would pull him away. Duty done, the man strides back across the field like joy walking. "Mama," he crows to his beaming mother, "we made news in Heaven this morning." The sedan pulls away.

All told, the scene takes only a few minutes. But how much Duvall is able to accomplish! Right up front, he lets us know that his character, a charismatic Pentecostal evangelist named Euliss "Sonny" Dewey, is a prideful son-of-a-gun with a temper and an ugly streak of self-righteousness. (Too bad if that passenger's a Buddhist.) He's also a devout man, though, and the scene's remarkable coda shows his faith is indeed capable of working miracles. The miracle is that The Apostle never backs away from the contradictions in Sonny's character, or from the jumble of moods and emotions in that first scene. What Duvall has created is the most complex, and certainly the most entertaining, American movie ever made about a flawed man of God.

Is Sonny a fake or a flake? Neither, exactly; but to Duvall's credit as actor, writer, and director, he always leaves us wondering. Sonny leads a thriving congregation in Texas, where he tours the revival circuit like a big-name motivational speaker. Then comes the fall. Fed up with his drinking, his womanizing, and his beatings, his wife Jessie (Farrah Fawcett) strikes up an affair with a younger minister. They wrest away control of his church. Sonny drinks; Sonny rails at his maker all hours of the night. Sonny takes a baseball bat to the young minister's head. The man of God is now a man on the run.

So Sonny throws himself once more in God's hands, and he buries his identity, along with his car, in a pond. At this point, I hate to say more about the plot, because so much of the film's pleasures lie in the casual unfolding of the story and being swept along in Sonny's wake. Let's just say that Duvall sends Sonny on a journey of redemption that isn't in the least bit preachy or sickly sweet; that Barry Markowitz's cinematography captures perfectly the sticky heat and dusty streets of the Deep South; that Duvall envisions an integrated community that isn't a contradiction in terms; and that he lingers over faces and locations that no big-budget venture would give a second look. Sonny's America, a world of jackleg revivals and small-town garages and one-room AM stations, is one we've hardly ever seen at the movies. It even looks like someplace somebody might actually live.

Sonny's flaws are serious and scary, and Duvall doesn't downplay them. Throughout the movie, whenever Sonny does something noble, it's almost always balanced by a twinge of self-preservation, hubris, or personal gain. He can be cowardly--he won't visit his ailing mother (June Carter Cash at her most angelic) because he's ducking the police--and even after he grants himself a spiritual rebirth in a muddy creek, he's not above settling an argument with his fists. Indeed, Duvall suggests his faith may only reinforce his dangerous self-righteousness.

But in most movies, Sonny's failings as a human being would prove him a scam artist: He'd be Elmer Gantry, or Steve Martin's slick-talking hustler in Leap of Faith. Instead, Sonny's genuine spirituality coexists uneasily with a hotheaded nature--the age-old war between mind and flesh. If he were conning people, he wouldn't risk capture by building a new congregation. If he were perfect, he'd have no need to seek or extol redemption.

Duvall plays Sonny the preacher as a born entertainer, and, refreshingly, he doesn't think that makes Sonny a hypocrite. The church I attended as a kid was Baptist, not Pentecostal, but every year we waited to see what the visiting revival preacher would have up his sleeve. One told humorous sermon-length anecdotes; another passed out "Bible Bucks" with Jesus' face on them. But nobody doubted the sincerity of their message; if anything, people were grateful for the effort. Duvall spent years researching the world of grassroots evangelism, and the early glimpses he gives us of religion as traveling show are wonderful: a tent revival where Sonny and a half-dozen preachers line up and trade off testimony like jazz soloists; a bilingual Hispanic service where he demonstrates Jesus reckoning Godzilla-style vengeance on "el Diablo."

The cast mixes non-professional and untrained actors with ringers like Billy Bob Thornton and Miranda Richardson; among the many memorable supporting players, Zelma Loyd as a parishioner, Rick Dial (the repair-shop owner in Sling Blade) as a radio-station owner, and Billy Joe Shaver as Sonny's loyal pal stand out. But the movie is Robert Duvall's triumph from start to finish. As a send-off, he gives himself a 20-minute sermon that's one rousing, resourceful piece of screen acting, an incantation of fervor, fear, and regret that arcs like lightning. Sonny Dewey may not be touched by divine inspiration, but his creator--well, that's another story.

--Jim Ridley

Before and after

As literature, mysteries are strangely comforting. No matter how high the body count, the guilty will most likely be punished, the innocent saved in the nick of time, and the world restored to order. No such comfort awaits in the profoundly disturbing The Sweet Hereafter, adapted for the screen from Russell Banks' novel by Canadian director Atom Egoyan. Though it has the elements of a procedural, The Sweet Hereafter is something much more disquieting a mystery about the restoration of disorder--about the way tragedy ruptures the routines and rituals that safeguard us against the intrusion of chaos.

The investigator here is the agent of discord--a glib attorney, Mitchell Stephens (Ian Holm), who seeks out the citizens of a small Canadian town devastated by loss. On a slippery road, a school bus loaded with kids plunged into a frozen lake; in an instant, the townspeople were robbed of their children, their futures, and their illusions of security. Nothing will bring back the kids, Stephens pitches to couple after grief-stricken couple, but a huge class-action settlement will make somebody pay. Somebody must pay. But who?

The first rule of order is to assess the blame. "There's no such thing as an accident," the unflappable Stephens tells two "hippies" (Earl Pastko and Arsine Khanjian) whose will to live seems to have died with their adoptive son. But as the attorney pokes around the crash site, the suit triggers a rift among the town's grieving parents. For if the crash wasn't caused by negligence, it must have been cosmic retribution: for the hotel owner (Alberta Watson) who was cheating on her husband with the local mechanic (Bruce Greenwood); for the frustrated musician (Tom McCamus) who was forcing his dreams--and perhaps himself--on his pop-singer daughter (Sarah Polley).

The Sweet Hereafter is the most humane, and the most wrenching, of Atom Egoyan's prickly, dark-humored movies. On the surface, the film bears scant relation to Egoyan's ironic black comedies, whose clinical, poker-faced acceptance of aberrant behavior resembles a David Lynch quirkfest run through one of David Cronenberg's telepods. His most recent, the fascinating but coolly remote Exotica, started with a kinky situation--a bereaved father (again, Bruce Greenwood) obsessed with a schoolgirl stripper--and worked its way backward to show how we'd misjudged the motivations of everyone involved. But the director seemed more interested in tweaking the audience's voyeuristic expectations than in exploring the inner state of his characters.

In retrospect, the absurdist gamesmanship of those earlier movies was a warm-up for The Sweet Hereafter's daringly fractured style and its solemn, staggering depth of feeling. In its early scenes, The Sweet Hereafter moves effortlessly back and forth in time, contrasting the ravaged townspeople with their blissfully mundane lives before the crash. "Before the crash"--the phrase comes to haunt every frame. We feel for the bus driver (Gabrielle Rose) who chokes back tears in a room decorated with school pictures; somehow, though, it's even more upsetting to see the sweetly gawky woman exchanging banal pleasantries with smiling parents as they usher their kids onto the bus. The movie's splintered chronology ultimately removes everyone from the here and now--even Stephens, who agonizes over a junkie daughter whose life he once literally held in his hands. Grief erases the present tense; it leaves only a before and an after.

Two sides of the man
Robert Duvall, finding redemption in The Apostle. Photo By Van Redin
In various forms, in all of his movies, Egoyan has examined the impact of tragedy and the managing of loss. From the radiant first image, of a sleeping couple cradling a little girl, The Sweet Hereafter is suffused with a parent's anxious, consuming love for a child. (The use of Robert Browning's "The Pied Piper of Hamelin" as a suggestive refrain is inspired.) But Egoyan gives us a terrible gift he spares his characters: the knowledge of what is to come. We watch the town's placid routines of daily life--the father who follows the school bus every day and waves to his kids, the parents who insist on walking their boy to the bus stop--knowing that the good-luck rituals will fail. When we see the sleeping couple again, late in the film, we know what they'll awaken to. The characters can't even retreat safely into memory--there are too many guilty secrets, too much potential blame. When the lawsuit is resolved, in a courtroom scene all the more gripping for its lack of theatrics, it absolves no one.

The movie's icy calm is enhanced by Paul Sarossy's cinematography, which emphasizes the town's isolation and the heavy expanses of snow, and by Mychael Danna's serene madrigal strains on the soundtrack. As Stephens, Ian Holm lends ambiguity and humanity to what could've been a stock shyster role, and the supporting cast is wondrous, from Sarah Polley's quietly accusing survivor to Bruce Greenwood's anguished father. And there are countless moments of piercing beauty, culminating in a guilt-stricken look of remembrance exchanged on a crowded street, years after the crash, between two survivors who want nothing more than to forget. The Sweet Hereafter offers no comfort, only the experience of its sorrowful truths, and the emergence of a once promising filmmaker as a great one.

--Jim Ridley

Film epic

Jean-Luc Godard's 1963 film Contempt is Godard for people who don't like Godard. Its story of a would-be playwright hired by an American producer to rewrite Homer's Odyssey for the screen is appealingly self-referential, even postmodern--familiar territory for the Derrida generation. The legendary French New Wave director keeps the experimental techniques to a minimum a little film tinting here, a flash-forward montage there. Fritz Lang appears as himself, Godard hovers in the background as his assistant, and Jack Palance chews the scenery as the despotic producer Prokosh (a stab at Godard's producer Joseph E. Levine).

But Contempt is much more than a good-natured romp through studio in-jokes. Framed by the giddy fun of the filmmaking scenes, a quieter, deeper tale of abrogated responsibility, fading emotions, and fatal indecision unfolds in a small Roman apartment. Writer Paul (Michel Piccoli) insists to his beautiful wife Camille (Brigitte Bardot) that he is only taking the Odyssey job to pay for their new digs and to make her happy. But Camille's love for him turns to contempt when he knuckles under to Prokosh at their first meeting, using the American's interest in his wife as leverage for getting a job.

The tortuous thread of their marriage unravels slowly, over a single half-hour scene at the heart of the film. Back and forth go their arguments, like a lamp Paul turns on and off, like the wig that turns Bardot's hair from blond to brunette at a whim. It's not until the third act, on the Odyssey set in Capri, that we understand what draws Paul to this material: Like Ulysses as interpreted by the screenwriter himself, he prefers to push decisions off onto others, as if he's doing them a favor, and then call the results "fate." If the viewer reads this back into the apartment scene, the movie transcends its navel-gazing obsession with movies and becomes as universal as Homer's epic.

Certainly among Godard's most accessible films, Contempt features Bardot's most famous performance, as a wife who consents to be used because her reliance on her husband--who plucked her out of the typing pool--is absolute. Fans of Lang will enjoy his offhand remarks about his own career ("Personally, I prefer M"), especially as a world-weary European foil to Prokosh's delusions of grandeur. And Palance hits exactly the right note, with hilarious and tragic effect, as the ugly American who aims to improve on Homer and German expressionism.

The 1997 restoration and rerelease of Contempt also demonstrates with fresh vigor Godard's way with color. Utilizing a unified palette that ranges from the ancient daylight of Rome to the cerulean blue of the Mediterranean to the lipstick-red sofa in Paul and Camille's modernist apartment, the director views Europe as a place where technology and style have changed nothing important in human nature since the dawn of time. Contempt may be a lark when compared to Godard's more challenging works, but it still plumbs depths unknown to other filmmakers.

--Donna Bowman

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