by RICHARD WINTERS
As a would-be screenwriter myself, I find it heartening how many great screenplays there are out there that struggle to find a home no matter who has written or pitched them. Robert Duvall wrote the solid screenplay for this film in the ‘80s only to have it be rejected by every major studio. It only got made when he decided to put up 4 million dollars of his own money.
The story involves a fiery evangelical minister by the name of Sonny (Duvall) whose volatile ways gets the better of him when he ends up killing his wife’s lover. He then goes on the run to Louisiana where he starts up a new church. There he begins to turn his life around and becomes loved and admired by the community only to have the police close in on him.
In many ways, this is similar to a 1962 episode of the old “Alfred Hitchcock Hour” series that was entitled “Bonfire” and starred Peter Falk as the minister. Both characters are loud and very dramatic preachers. Both men went on the run after committing homicide and started up new congregations along the way. They also both end up getting surrounded by the police during a service as they give one last fiery sermon. However, the main difference is that Falk’s character was clearly a self-serving fraud while with Sonny that is not so clear, which is what makes this film and character so fascinating.
Sonny clearly has a temper as well as other underlying issues, but he makes a genuine effort to rectify things with his new church. He even brings boxes of groceries to the doorsteps of poor families. It is never clear whether he is simply trying to make personal amends for past transgressions, or just a flawed man with a good heart. The viewer is never allowed to feel sure either way, but ends up empathizing with him as well as being given a very strong character portrait. Every scene and line of dialogue is revealing.
Duvall gives a strong performance. I felt this may be his signature role and that comes after a long line of already brilliant performances. I enjoyed his running “conversations with the Lord” that he has when he is alone or just walking down the street. The conversation that he has with the police after he is arrested is amusing as is the final scene that is shown over the closing credits.
The casting is unusual. June Carter Cash plays his mother, which is interesting simply by the fact that in real-life she was only two years older than Duvall. Farrah Fawcett plays his wife, and although she was much younger than him, I felt she did a good job and made a perfect fit. Billy Bob Thornton gets a memorable cameo as a man who initially wants to destroy the church with a bulldozer, but then with Sonny’s help becomes spiritually awakened. I also very much liked James Beasley in the supporting role as the minister who helps Sonny start up his new church. His calm and collected manner helped balance Duvall’s intensity.
I also liked the fact that the supporting cast was almost all African-American and the story centered on a white minister preaching to a black congregation. The supporting players were all amateur actors, some of whom had never performed before. As director, Duvall was known for keeping the atmosphere loose during filming. He allowed his cast to ad-lib, which gives the film a more real-life feel. Just as with other actors who turned to directing, like Paul Newman and Marlon Brando, Duvall shoots scenes that stretch on much longer than most films. This is done to give the actors more control over their characters and allow their performances alone to carry the scene.
Duvall has long been known as an admirer of the South, so it is no surprise that the story takes place in the deep South and that the film was shot on-location. He captures the ambience of the region and people quite well, including the sound of the bugs buzzing at night.
The only issue I had with the film involves the scene where Sonny kills his wife’s lover. He does this by hitting him over the head with a baseball bat during a Little League game in front of many onlookers. In most accounts that I have read, when a situation like this happens in real life, most people will gang up on the culprit and physically subdue him or chase after him until the police arrive. However, in the film, the onlookers either go to the victim, or just stand around and allow Sonny to peacefully walk away. Other than that small flaw, I would highly recommend this film.
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