Apostle is Gareth Evans’ first feature since his one-two punch of The Raid and The Raid 2 which instantly became the epitome of action cinema. Evans’ knack for crafting action seemingly had the world at his feet, he would have been able to tackle any project he so wished. So here’s a Guignol-esque trudge through the blood-soaked horrors of a pagan cult that, whilst enthralling and filled with his typically-brilliant camerawork, just about falls short of the sum of its parts.
Set during the early 20th century, washed-up opium abuser Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens – The Guest) is given instructions by his upper-class family to rescue his sister Jennifer (Elen Rhys), who has been taken in by a sinister pagan-like cult on a faraway island under the watchful eye of their prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen, putting in some brilliant work). After sneaking his way onto the island as a new member, Thomas slowly learns of the heavily-religious ways of the society. They’re in bed before dark, they attend sermons taken by Malcolm and live a fairly pastoral existence – nothing too out of the ordinary. Evan’s screenplay takes time in allowing the blips in the system to show- you better be prepared for a slow burn as, much like last years’ A Cure for Wellness, Evans has no time for your preferences or ‘attention span’. Instead, when Thomas makes discoveries they come naturally. For example, upon his first night he befittingly stumbles upon the daily sacrifice of blood to an unknown entity, conjuring up a million potential directions for the film to go in. Many other filmmakers would take pride in this enigmatic approach, yet Evans has proven time and time again to never know when enough is enough, and instead chucks in the presence of rabid, zombie-like individuals for the briefest of moments; it’s enough to make you pause the film and wonder what the hell’s going on. Again, it’s a matter of taste and I can’t state that enough. Personally I was in for the ride.
Apostle’s first half plays like a lovechild of The Wicker Man and The Village, with the occasional flash of The Evil Dead thrown in for good measure. It’s an intriguing mix for sure, and Evans uses the film’s measurable runtime to ease the viewer into the manic handheld zips that his films are known for. There’s very little action to be had within the film, but when there is he doesn’t shy away from indulging in some good ole’ fashioned gore. There are impalings, cracked bones and stabbings aplenty, though they never feel unwarranted until the film’s climax. Instead, they play upon the sense of unease that the society and Sheen’s Malcolm creates. He in particular plays the role of a false prophet with heavy shoulders tremendously, fighting against his brother Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones) for control over the town. Malcolm is a man who violence is forced upon, much like Thomas, and the two are easily the best performers in the film. Stevens grimaces through his hardships and implements action without breaking a sweat. It’s only in regard to his character’s drug addiction where things begin to feel a little half-hearted, as it’s one of the few plot points that are left dangling by the time the proverbial hits the fan within the film’s second half.
A side plot between young forbidden lovers Ffion (Kristine Froseth) and Jeremy (Bill Milner) plays out in typical Romeo and Juliet fashion before being twisted into the film’s most grotesque set-piece. Even at its most conventional Apostle stands out by severing plots (and characters) in gruesome fashion. This is not clean torture by any means necessary and the film takes sheer joy in showing the grim realities of rusted metal on skin through some warped presentation and ace sound design (one scene in particular had me wincing without even showing much). Once the cult’s remarkably designed goddess is revealed in all her glory, the detailed set design manages to work in unison with the film’s rising insanity to the point where I’d like to see Evans tackle a Silent Hill film if he’s interested at all.
As with most films that center on a sinister religious cult, thematically the concept of worshiping a non-existent deity is explored to various points. It’s here where Apostle chucks so many elements at us that it’s merely just a case of seeing what sticks. The concept of the supernatural is introduced within the film’s manic second half, which sees Quinn take control over Malcolm and push towards a change in the religion’s dynamic. Gareth Evans is barely able to keep the camera still from this point onwards, milking every slow aerial shot for all its worth and cranking up the tension in scenes reminiscent of Neil Marshall’s The Descent as Thomas explores the tunnels running throughout the island. Cinematographer Matt Flannery wrings the beauty out of the grotesque, and isn’t afraid to let the periods of washed-out colours strengthen the film’s violent reds as it progresses.
Nature plays a huge part too, with the blood-soaked soil of the island marrying the tranquility of the film’s final moments mere minutes after a hefty display of dismembered limbs, torture traps and screaming disfigured henchmen. As the civilians of the island flee to the boats back to the mainland, it begs the question as to how anyone could stand to stay in both a place and a film as primal as this. Without the constant flow of action for the previous two hours, Evans fires one guttural punch of the insane after another. The only problem with this is that at despite how many of them hit their mark reaction-wise, you’re immediately distracted by what happens next which could be just as crazy. It’s already a polarising film at this point so I don’t see why Evans didn’t just extend the runtime even further to allow the shocks to settle under your skin before unleashing the next one. Nevertheless it’s a bold move for the film’s second half, and ushers in the kind of tonal shift that I’m a complete sucker for.
Whilst a lot of Apostle’s problems can be chalked up to preference, there’s a few areas in which it crumbles when applied with the slightest bit of tension. For example Thomas’ whole goal of finding his sister is picked up and dropped dozens of times throughout the film. It’s only when she is found towards the halfway mark where you actually realise who the whole character is. Lucy Boynton’s Andrea, Malcolm’s daughter, also suffers from a lack of characterisation within the film. Boynton’s proven herself a capable actor in her other work yet Evans’ script lacks much development for his female characters. That being said, this reflects the paganistic views of the cult itself, with Quinn holding a similar male-oriented view in line with his beliefs. Jones infuses the character with a grotesque sense of self-righteousness, a fear-monger who leads the blind into a state of the unknown by following false information. This is an old world, and therefore it’s a man’s world. The only saving grace seems to be the horribly underused Paul Higgins (The Thick of It) as Malcolm and Quinn’s brother Frank, the head of security for the island. Whilst his screen time is limited, it’s Higgins’ visible empathy that allows Malcolm to act as the halfway mark between him and his demented and jealous brother. It’s the relationship between these three siblings that seems to be the most fleshed out within the film.
Apostle is an excessive film. It’s difficult to classify by genre and tone, and by that description alone you should be able to tell whether it’s for you or not. For those of you that are willing to give it a chance, Gareth Evans will send buckets of blood splattering your way from a whole host of different directions. If you can forgive its narrative shortcomings and experimental nature then you’re in for one of the most unique experiences of the year.