Author: Robert Duvall
Director: Robert Duvall
Don’t watch this movie if you believe in the Eleventh Commandment (“Thou shalt not shout!”). This is one of those movies that’s impossible to classify. I knew little about it other than it was a low budget independent film written, directed, produced, financed by, and staring Robert Duvall. I saw a few bits of an interview with Duvall when this movie was released and it sounded fascinating, but I didn’t know the story. I was leery of Hollywood’s portrayal of a Pentecostal preacher. I’d heard the movie being praised because the lead character was a flawed preacher, and Hollywood seemed to think this was revolutionary. Frankly, hearing that didn’t impress me: every preacher I’ve seen on film or TV has been flawed. Usually when there’s a flawed preacher Hollywood sets out to revile in the flaws, to delight in showing the blackness under the Christian mask. But this film isn’t like that at all. Duvall’s character is incredibly human, but there’s little fanfare. You have to work to see his flaws. The movie is about rebirth, about passion and commitment, about humanity, about frailty, about suffering and desire. There isn’t a wrong step anywhere: it’s amazingly realistic, eerily so. I grew up in Pentecostal churches and this movie was like a flashback to scenes from my childhood. I know that affects how I interpret the film: Duvall, for instance, said he made the movie because he was fascinated by Pentecostalism and so few Americans know about it (especially Hollywood). Indeed, the film has a documentary feel to it — it’s an inside look at the Pentecostal world. To me, Pentecostalism is as ordinary as a loaf of bread, but I can see from his outsider perspective, something like “tag team” preaching is bizarre and interesting. Because of my familiarity with the subject, certain parts of the film were slow and uninteresting. I also initially distrusted the movie’s portrayal of Christians as I’m used to that being a setup in Hollywood films: the Christian always turns out to be the insane serial killer. I also am personally turned off by characters like Sonny (Duvall’s role) who spew religious platitudes the way many men swear. But in this movie I slowly came to realize that this wasn’t an act, this was legitimate. Sonny really believes every word he says, as trite as it sometimes sounds. This is not an impression you can gain from five minutes with somebody — it requires you spend an incredible amount of time with the person, in all sorts of circumstances, and watch how they react. This movie allows you to do that. It’s an intimate portrait unlike any I’ve seen. Truly a tour-de-force for Duvall, and well-worthy his Oscar nomination. The story itself is seemingly slight: a preacher runs away to a small town and works to rebuild a church. In the process he rediscovers himself, God, and gives hope to people who need it. It’s fascinating: unexpectedly complex in this day of simplistic Hollywood plots where every detail is explained away. Instead of explanations, Duvall just shows things happening. It’s up to the viewer to interpret them. Incredible, and it shows a great deal of faith in the intelligence of the audience (something rare in major motion pictures). I can picture myself watching this again and again in the future, each time discovering subtle aspects I missed. I think I’ll like it better every time I see it. It’s not a movie everyone will like: it’s slow moving at times, low key, intensely passionate, shocking, disturbing, and ultimately satisfying. Whereas most Hollywood productions that involve religion deal with religious conflict (i.e. the clash between faith and science in Contact), this movie doesn’t do that: it’s a simple story about a human preacher. That’s it. And amazingly, it works.