Gareth Evans made his name with martial arts films, but based on how shockingly violent The Raid and The Raid 2 are, it’s not surprising that he would direct his interest toward the horror genre — and its ample opportunities for gruesome viscera. Like a remake of The Wicker Man that transforms into a riff on Witchfinder General, Apostle follows Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) as he attempts to infiltrate an island of cultists who have kidnapped his sister. He’s been instructed to retrieve proof of life before he pays off the ransom demand, but things turn sinister even before he sets off for the island. Why is his ticket marked with a conspicuous red spot? Why does the ship’s captain demand that all books be burned before setting sail? Once on the island, why are the new arrivals inspected like cattle, and why are the villagers leaving glass jars full of blood outside their doors at night? Evans parcels out bits of backstory here and there, but seems only half-interested in cultivating mystery. He’s no master storyteller (Merantu and The Raid 2 are both flabby and too long), nor is he much suited to the slow-burn style of horror he’s trying for here. A few scenes get milked for suspense, but they end quickly, and Evans seems most engaged by their violent resolutions. Instead, the horror and (generous amounts of) brutality are quick and nasty, as the supernatural elements initially hinted at come to the fore. Evans certainly knows how to stage a set-piece, and the second half of Apostle is essentially one long, escalating sequence that starts at murder and torture before revving up to total insanity.
A few scenes get milked for suspense, but they end quickly, and Evans seems most engaged by their violent resolutions.
Led by Prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen), the little island colony of cultists in Apostle is essentially America in microcosm – birthed by a desire to flee the tyranny of king and country and founded on ideals of liberty and religious freedom. Malcolm speaks of equality and hard work, proclaiming that the ‘tax man’ won’t come knocking on your door here, in this place of opportunity. His people have their own version of a bible, referring to a “mother” instead of ‘our father.’ But much like America, this origin story is built on a lie, and the colony has fallen into corruption, greed, and avarice. In fact, while it might be a stretch, one could read this community as a critique of any imperialist colonial enterprise. Internecine fighting plagues the ranks of Prophet Malcolm and his lieutenants, as they jockey for power. The crops and livestock are dying as the land dries-up, poisoned by inhumanity and cruelty. Stevens’s Thomas walks through all of this with a fierce determination – he has seen the worst of humanity and renounced his own God, and seems perfectly willing to sacrifice himself to save his sister. Evans brutally propels his narrative along, dispatching several main characters by the film’s midpoint, and revealing, fairly early on, the answer to the question of What Is Happening In This Place. What’s left is a grueling gauntlet of misery for Thomas; one could almost call Apostle a kind of supernatural companion piece to Martin Scorsese’s Silence. In a fascinating inversion of The Wicker Man’s well-known ending, here the victim is ready and willing, happy to return to the land and become one with something, anything. All this mayhem, surprisingly, leads-up to a peaceful, quiet note, as Thomas finds a kind of grace at the end of all his suffering.
You can currently stream Gareth Evans’s Apostle on Netflix.