By Richard Winters
My Rating: 8 out of 10
4-Word Review: Preacher on the run.
As a would-be screenwriter I find it heartening knowing how many great screenplays there are out there that struggle to find a home no matter who has written or pitched it. Actor Robert Duvall wrote the solid screenplay for this film in the 80’s only to have it rejected by every major studio and 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 and 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 become 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 were loud and dramatic preachers. Both men went on the run after committing homicide while continuing to start up new congregations along the way and both ended up being surrounded by the police as they gave one last fiery sermon. However, the difference comes with the fact that the Falk 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 has a temper as well as other underlying issues, but he makes a genuine effort to rectify things with his new congregation. 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 nonetheless. Every scene and line of utterance becomes more 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 is amusing as is the final scene that is shown over the closing credits.
The casting is unique. June Carter Cash plays his mother, which is interesting 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.
The supporting players were all amateur actors, some of which had never performed in front of the camera before. Director Duvall was known during filming to keep the atmosphere loose. He allowed his cast to ad-lib, which gives the film a more authentic feel. Just like with other actors who turned to directing, like Paul Newman and Marlon Brando, Duvall has scenes that stretch out 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. 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.
Duvall has long been known to be an admirer of the south, so it is no surprise that the story takes place there or that the shooting was on-location. He captures the ambience of the region and people quite well, including the sound of the heat 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 while in front of many onlookers. In most real-life accounts when something similar to this happens people will usually gang up on the culprit and physically subdue him, or chase after him until the police arrive while here the onlookers allow Sonny to peacefully walk away. Other than that I thought this was a great character study and I would highly recommend it.
My Rating: 8 out of 10
Released: October 9, 1997
Runtime: 2Hours 14Minutes
Director: Robert Duvall
Studio: Butcher Run Films
Available: VHS, DVD, Amazon Instant Video