Sonny Comes Home

25 03 2008

There are many reasons I believe Robert Duvall’s 1997 film, The Apostle, is a must see.  Duvall’s portrayal is one of the best performances of his career and considering he is one of the best actors of his generation that is no small task.  However, Duvall’s acting is not THE reason this film is so powerful.

Second, the movie is notably one of the only films to come out of Hollywood with a realistic portrayal of “Bible Belt Christianity” (albeit a particular flavor).  You find no cruel Scripture spouting warden as is portrayed in Shawshank Redemption, no apocalyptic fanatic as is displayed in Contact, there is no warped “Christian” psycho-path as in Cape Fear, and there is not even a faith healing con-man as seen in Leap of Faith.  This film genuinely attempts to give an honest glimpse at a true believer, warts and all.  Most evangelicals are not accustomed to receiving that level of respect by Hollywood and this is reason enough to watch this film but it is not THE reason.

There are multiple reasons one should see the film but what is THE reason you should watch this movie?  Well, The Apostle deserves to be taken seriously because the conflict between sin and grace lies at the heart of the plot and its portrayal of undeserved grace is both powerfully moving and disturbing.  The plot is a modern day parable about sin and grace told through the story of a southern Pentecostal preacher.  The first biblical reference invokes the story of the thief on the cross next to Christ who asks for and receives grace from our suffering servant Lord.  The reference foreshadows the story of Eulis “Sonny” Dewey.  Like the thief, Sonny is a deeply fallen sinner who desires salvation and longs for grace.

Sonny is a true believer, a fact which is powerfully revealed in the first minutes of the movie when he and his mother, played by the late June Carter Cash, encounter a roadside accident.  Sonny leaves the car and finds the injured, prays with them to receive Christ before returning to his car to tell his mother that news was “made in heaven today”.   Religious charlatans do not take time to pray with the dying unless they smell a buck in it.  However, though Sonny is a true believer, he is also a deeply flawed sinful believer.  The film alludes to infidelity and abuse towards his wife and, when she leaves him for the youth minister of his church, Sonny kills the young man at a ball field in a fit of rage.

When the film was initially released it was not received warmly by many evangelical Christians.  I believe many simply could not deal with Sonny’s flawed character and that speaks more to our inability to fully understand God’s grace than the films portrayal of it.  There is no doubt that this man is a sinner.  That is the point being made.  His actions are disturbing, even horrendous, but never unforgivable.  One cannot deny that Sonny is a true believer.  He is painfully aware of his humanity yet dedicated to God.  He seeks redemption for his sin through prayer and fasting and symbolizes his new start with a baptism in a roadside river.

Following the baptism we view a journey of redemption.  Sonny begins again and brings Christ to others in genuine ways through word and deed.  “The emergence of new life is neither sudden, dramatic, nor sensational.  It comes in slow, incremental gestures.  By the end, something profound, loving and final has taken over Sonny; he knows it and we know it too.”1  Sonny eventually is arrested and faces justice, in this life, for his actions but viewers have a sense that he really does not mind because he has found grace from God’s justice.  In the end Sonny comes home and finds grace there and that is THE reason people need to see this film.

1. The quote is taken from Books and Culture (published by Christianity Today, 1997). 



14 responses

26 03 2008

WOW! You always manage to hit it bull eye. I am truly gorwing ot appreciate this site and the insight into God’s grace it provides. Also, the emphasis upon different art forms and story is one which is so needed. Thank you. I will be back.

26 03 2008

Thank you Jason. Your comment is very encouraging and extremely kind. I hope you check back often or even join through a suscription. Blessings.

26 03 2008

I admit that I had very difficult time watching The Apostle. I agree with your apprasial of Duval’s portrayal as being amazing. I got lost in the movie and felt his pain. It reminds me of the saying that goes something like, “What we often dislike in others is the very thing we dislike the most about ourselves.” As a flawed human, I too fear the consequence of my folly without God’s grace. Thanks for a thought provoking blog. In the words of another, albeit less graceful character, “I’ll be back.”

26 03 2008

Thank you brother. I love the quote and it is so true. One of the truly amazing things about the grace of christ (and most difficult to understand) is how it works in us dispite our lack of understanding. We are so fallen and yet He loves us still.

26 03 2008

This film is one of my favorites ever. I have used it in a high school youth group to explore faith in a world of sin. I love your fashioning of grace. Thank you!
BTW, love the Cash post you gave me. Blessings and grace to you.

27 03 2008

I love this film, and everything about it; from it’s depiction of Sonny’s struggles to the shot of him preaching to other prisoners while working hard labor at the end.

If you haven’t seen it, another I would recommend with Duvall is “Tender Mercies.” He plays a washed up alcoholic country singer trying to pull his life together. Faith is an important element in that movie as well.

27 03 2008

Thanks Ryan and Odgie. Ryan I thought you would enjoy the Cash post. Check bacck from time to time becuase we will be looking closer at him. Odgie, you are so right about “Tender Mercies”. I have read that Duvall is a “lifelong beleiver” and the themses of sin, forgiveness, grace and redemption seem to run through allot of his characters. Your encouragement and comments are so kind. Thank you!
In Christ Alone,

27 03 2008
Marlene Wawrzyniak

Pastor, I have not seen this movie but it is now first on my list of movies to see. Your blog is great.

27 03 2008

Let me know if you like it. Blessings!

6 04 2008
Trey Morgan

I thought the film was excellent too. I was challenged and encouraged. It was a movie about grace. It’s one of my all time favorite movies!

6 04 2008

Mine also! Thank you Trey.

2 05 2008

I use this film as a finale to the Senior Philosophy class I teach at a Christian high school. The “Sonny dichotomy” really strikes them…how can such a horrible sinner bring so many to Christ, and love Christ so much? I ask them to compare themselves to Sonny, and almost all students closely identify with his struggle with sin. I loved your article, and will be adding some aspects from it concerning grace to my material. Thank you very much!

2 05 2008

Thanks Donna! I love the titel the “Sonny Dichotomy”.

16 02 2009


Thanks for the comment on my post ( I like your list of Hollywood portrayals of Christianity. I have to admit, though, that I liked “Leap of Faith” a lot, as I recall. (It’s been a while.)

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