Apostle screened at Fantastic Fest and hits Netflix on October 12.
What is Apostle?
In this gripping period piece — set in 1905 — a former missionary travels to a remote island to rescue his sister, who is being held captive by a religious cult. But when he arrives there’s no sign of said sibling. While the powers that be are onto our hero, setting in motion a tense game of cat-and-mouse, that ends badly for all involved.
A Major Departure
Apostle is a pretty major departure for director Gareth Evans. The Welshman made his name with The Raid and The Raid 2, turning him into the go-to guy for astonishing Indonesian action. But along the way he also snuck out a segment of anthology horror V/H/S 2, that acts as something of a precursor to his new release.
That extended short — set in the present day — revolves around a camera crew visiting a cult, and becoming embroiled in the horrors therein. Apostle covers much the same terrain, albeit at the turn of the last century, and at a much more stately pace.
Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey, Legion) plays Thomas Richardson, a former missionary who is spurred into action by a ransom letter detailing his beloved sister’s abduction. And Richardson has issues. He’s addicted to drugs. There’s a cross burned into his back. And he has the haunted look of a man who has witnessed unspeakable horrors. But he’s also unwavering in his determination to rescue his sister. Making Richardson a seriously compelling protagonist.
Thomas makes the long journey to Erisden by boat, switching tickets with another passenger so he can go undetected when he arrives. And on the island he discovers a seeming paradise, where money doesn’t change hands, freedom and equality reign, and crime has been replaced by compassion. Or so we’re told.
The cult’s leader Malcolm (Michael Sheen) worships the Goddess of the land, who speaks through him, so she may “enrich the mind’s of men.” But it quickly becomes clear that Malcolm is using religion for political means, to control and oppress his people. And we meet him at a time when something is seriously rotten in that state, the crops failing, society falling apart, and his followers starting to question Malcolm’s word.
The Secrets of the Island
What follows is a slow-burning thriller in which Thomas searches for his sister while Malcolm tracks him. But one that turns into horror as the island’s secrets are revealed, the film taking a surprising supernatural turn that has bloody consequences for all.
So while it starts out like a cross between horror classic The Wicker Man and found footage flick The Sacrament, the film Apostle most resembles is The Witch, in terms of pace, and style, and tone. Unfortunately, at 129-minutes, the movie ultimately outstays its welcome. Indeed there’s a moment where Malcolm states that “it ends tonight,” which feels like a natural place for the story to conclude. But it doesn’t, with Thomas’s mission continuing for what feels like an age.
It looks amazing however, cinematographer Matt Flannery capturing the both the beauty and the brutality of the island. While the horror is illustrated in graphic fashion, making it frequently hard to look at the screen. And this being Gareth Evans, there are snatches of the amazing action with which he made his name, Stevens kicking ass in a style that’s reminiscent of his fantastic turn in The Guest.
But The Raid this ain’t, with Apostle a more sedate affair. But one that’s no less powerful, attacking organised religion head-on, shocking with its hardcore horror, and proving that Evans is much more than just the action guy.
Is Apostle Good?
Apostle is far too long, and it times it feels like the material would have been better served as a mini-series rather than a single feature. But there are moments of greatness peppered throughout. Michael Sheen eats up the scenery as Malcolm, a magnetic presence who improves the film whenever he’s onsreen. And it’s nice to hear him using his own accent for once.
The oppressive atmosphere is impressively maintained throughout, the film feeling like a waking nightmare at times. The brief action is as good as you’d expect. And the movie has much to say about the corrupting influence of greed and power. Making Apostle Gareth Evans’ most intelligent and thought-provoking movie yet. If not quite his best.