Apostle (Movie Review)

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

PLOT: Early 1900s: On a desolated island somewhere in Europe, a man searches for his sister, recently kidnapped by a cult with mysterious motives.

REVIEW: With THE RAID and THE RAID 2, writer-director-editor Gareth Evans has more than proven he can direct action with the best of them; perhaps better than any modern director I can think of at the moment. Having satisfied his bloodlust in that genre, Evans has turned his attention to spilling the red stuff in the more sinister cult thriller subgenre: APOSTLE sees Evans using his talented eye to creep out, freak out and gross out. While THE RAID movies were about stunning you with their explosions of immaculately choreographed violence, APOSTLE wants to lure you into the dark and foreboding woods, give you the willies for a while, then blow you away with some seriously mortifying nightmare fuel. He tried his hand at horror once, successfully (with a segment in the anthology V/H/S 2), so how does he fare a second time around?

I would have to say that Evans half-succeeds. APOSTLE is dripping with foreboding atmosphere and boasts some excellent production design and cinematography. It creeps along at a deliberate pace, laying on disquieting moments and predictably toying with us as it lumbers toward a morbid conclusion. It feels very familiar, and not in a bad way; if you're a fan of movies like this (a splendid recent entry: David Bruckner's THE RITUAL), you'll find comfort in the torches that line a quiet village, the creaking of the steps in an abandoned cabin, the crouching in the darkness as something inexplicable happens just out of view. It's campfire story type stuff, and I love that.

And yet, the movie isn't quite a home run. There are loose ends I couldn't let go of, and a seemingly incomplete mythology that left me more frustrated than entranced. There's no doubt that APOSTLE has got the goods in several key categories – gloomy ambience being the main one – but when it was over I was a little disappointed, like I had seen the "not bad at all" version of a movie that I wanted to be great.

Dan Stevens, looking appropriately disheveled and paranoid, plays Thomas, a drug-abusing washout who is summoned by his family's estate to go on a mission: head to the home base of the religious cult that has kidnapped his sister and holds her for ransom and bring her home. Not quite up to the task but urged on by his brotherly duty, Thomas seeks to ingratiate himself to the cult on the idyllic island where they live. (He does this rather easily, one of the first head-scratching things about the film.) The cult is led by Prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen, very persuasive as always), who thunderously appeals to his flock to keep the faith even as their crops and livestock die off. Their previously bucolic society is in danger of extinction if they can't get food soon While his infiltration goes well at first, Thomas has to struggle with his sobriety, and sanity, when he gets closer to just what exactly these people are worshipping.

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Much of the first half of the film delivers your typical woodsy cult stuff, reminding us of everything from THE WICKER MAN to the myriad number of Hammer Horror thrillers of yore that dealt with secret rites, cloaked figures, candlelit ceremonies, torture devices and the perils of looking too closely into a religious sect. No doubt Evans has ingested his share of UK occult thrillers from the 60s and 70s, and he doesn't mind if we've noticed. As Thomas digs deeper into just what's going on within this community, we meet some of the townspeople and learn of their issues, like the teenage lovers (Bill Milner and Kristine Froseth) whose forbidden affair threatens to shake up the island even more so than Thomas' investigation. The majority of the islanders, however, are sketched quite vaguely.

When a movie like this really works, you don't bother (too much) with the "why did they do that?" or "how could that have happened?" questions that inevitably pop up, but APOSTLE piles on a mythology that, while seemingly straightforward initially, unravels the more you peer into it. In fact, the more things are revealed (at one point, a major antagonist helpfully provides some backstory, like a James Bond villain), the less scary the movie is. That said, even though it's too long (a smidge over two hours), APOSTLE ultimately feels as if material has been left out of it, or, perhaps more accurately, we're watching a truncated version of a fuller product. It is as if we're being told a tale by a storyteller who hasn't filled all the details in for himself yet.

Who are the people who've come to this place? Why have they committed to this lifestyle? Do they know who or what controls their island's fate? (They don't necessarily appear to be brainwashed or demented the way you'd expect.) Some of them can travel back and forth to the mainland, so why don't they try some alternative methods to making their lives work? Why do the town's elders resort to a kidnapping scheme when it undoubtedly shines a light on their secretive existence? There are more queries – a few involving some really creepy folks in a hut – but Evans doesn't necessarily want us to ask them.

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And that's fine; this is his show, he's free to divulge as much as he wishes. But there's no denying I consistently found myself perplexed by many of the characters' actions, and I ultimately didn't buy a majority of what was being sold. (I'd have to say Evans is much more confident as a director than as a screenwriter.) Because of the effectiveness of Evans' lens, the movie did hold my interest, at least most of the time. In terms of how he stages the eerie events, Evans once again proves himself a very capable craftsman, mounting considerable tension throughout and gifting us a few nail-biting suspense sequences. Those expecting RAID-esque action won't find much of that here – there are a few bursts of nasty violence, but no acrobatics or prolonged fights – but it's still clear Evans has a very sharp eye for composition; he's a talented director, not nearly a one-trick pony. I'd like to see him tackle material that's on more steady footing.

I have to see APOSTLE again, preferably in a theater. (Though that seems unlikely as Netflix holds the rights to the film.) Surely, the beautiful cinematography by Matt Flannery (who shot both RAID movies) deserves to be appreciated on the biggest screen possible, and I want to study closer the particulars of the village. Maybe a second viewing will make the confounding nature of what goes on a little more comprehensible. It could be one of those movies where, once you've accepted what it is (and what it isn't), your subsequent viewings will be more palatable, because they're less brimming with anticipation. I'm glad for what APOSTLE delivers, but, greedily, I wanted even more.

Side note: For a better look at Evans' horror side, see Safe Haven, his segment in the aforementioned V/H/S 2, which is freakier, weirder and more disturbing in about 30 minutes than APOSTLE is in 129 minutes. Safe Haven is an even more baffling exercise in WTF?! occult horror, leaving you with almost no answers to your questions, but its shocks are stronger, its frights more pronounced, and its overall effect more satisfying.




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About the Author

Eric Walkuski is a longtime writer, critic, and reporter for JoBlo.com. He's been a contributor for over 15 years, having written dozens of reviews and hundreds of news articles for the site. In addition, he's conducted almost 100 interviews as JoBlo's New York correspondent.