I’ve talked recently about the fact that Netflix has been rapidly trying to legitimize itself as a purveyor of quality films. Their track record hasn’t been the best, but in an era of a massive media conglomeration they’re trying to throw their hat into the ring as a new distributor of movies you actually may want to see. And they’re really starting to attract some great names. Just a couple weeks ago they released the third film from Jeremy Saulnier, which was quite a coup for the streaming service, showing that that they were able to draw in a pretty promising up and coming director. And, that momentum is still carrying them along, giving us another impressive get. Gareth Evans is almost certainly most known for directing a two-film series known as the Raid, a duo of intensely visceral and brutal action films from Indonesia. Evans made his name as a creator of some of the most innovative action films of the decade, and his next project has been extremely anticipated. Would he make something similar to the Raid movies, or try his hand at something new? Well, we now know that answer, and I don’t think it’s anything anyone could have expected. Because Gareth Evans took what was most likely a blank check from Netflix and used it to make a twisted horror film about a turn of the century cult, giving off some intense Wicker Man vibes. It’s certainly not what I was expecting, but I ended up enjoying it quite a bit.
Apostle is set in 1905 and tells the story of a man named Thomas Richardson. He has returned to his family after a prolonged drug-filled absence with the news that his sister Jennifer has been kidnapped by a strange cult living on a desolate island, and is being held for ransom. His father is too senile to deliver the money, so Richardson decides to go himself, and try to rescue his sister without having to pay anything. Thomas then boards a ship with other converts and heads to the island, being indoctrinated into their society. The island and its mini-civilization was founded by a trio of convicts who washed ashore and presumably made a pact with a powerful goddess who lives on the island. So, now people are allowed to come live in their communal society, as long as they swear fealty to the Goddess, and agree to fall in line with all the specific rules that the three men have laid down. Two of the men, Frank and Quinn, take care of a lot of the running of the town, but the real leader is Malcolm Howe, the head of their religion who holds a massive amount of sway on the island, and supposedly helps give them prosperity thanks to some ritualistic bloodletting that gain them favor from the Goddess. And, luckily for Thomas, he ends up getting in good with Malcolm when he just so happens to stop an assassination attempt on the cult leader by an English spy. That gives Thomas some leeway to wander around the island after dark, where he starts putting things together. And, after coming across Jeremy and Ffion, the children of Frank and Quinn having sex, he’s able to blackmail Jeremy into helping him. And, as luck would have it, Jeremy has heard about Thomas’ sister, and knows that the cult has kidnapped her because they’re running out of money.
Thomas continues spying on Malcolm, playing against his paranoia that there’s another spy on the island, and slowly starts to get closer to the truth. However, one night when Thomas is snooping around in Malcolm’s home, he ends up having to sneak off by sliding through a partially submerged tunnel that leads out to the shore. And, while travelling through that tunnel he comes across a deranged old woman who tries to attack him. He manages to escape, but learns that Malcolm and the others aren’t lying. There’s a literal Goddess on this island who is controlling its prosperity, and she’s in need of some human sacrifices. And, luckily for Thomas, things are about to explode. Because Quinn finds out that his daughter is pregnant by Frank’s son, and he ends up murdering his daughter and framing Jeremy. And, in the ensuing chaos, Quinn ends up deciding to throw a nice little coup. He tells the people that Malcolm is a false prophet, and that he’s the only one who is going to be able to please the Goddess and bring prosperity back to the island. And he’s going to do this by sacrificing Thomas’ sister Jennifer, since they’ve given up on ransoming her for money. Thomas then has to make his move, following Quinn down into the lair where the Goddess lives, trapped in a cage of plants, with her mysterious henchman the Grinder. Thing get pretty dire, and Quinn decides instead he’s going to impregnate Jennifer and Malcolm’s daughter to get children to sacrifice, until Thomas stops everything by granting the Goddess her one wish, and lighting her on fire. Quinn and Thomas fight a bit as the island starts to fall apart without the Goddess’ influence, until Quinn is murdered. Thomas then collapses on the beach of the island, watching as everyone begins fleeing, until his body is swallowed up by the island, becoming a new God.
Apostle was certainly not what I was expecting. And, I’m not quite positive if I would have liked it even more if it fell more in line with what I assumed the film was going to be or not. But, regardless of pointless hypotheticals, I still found this to be a really fun film that I highly recommend checking out. We were all expecting some insane and savage action from Evans, and we did get the occasionally brutal fight scene in the film. But, what I wasn’t expecting was a film this wonderfully tense and unnerving. The film’s shot in a shaky, close-up manner that helps disorientate the viewer, making them as unsure and terrified as Thomas is the entire runtime of the film. And, speaking of Thomas, this film lived and died on the performance of Dan Stevens, and as normal, he knocks it out of the goddamn park. I’ve been a big fan of Stevens for a while, and this film really solidifies the idea that manic Dan Stevens is the best Dan Stevens. I’ve had a soft spot for him as a potential James Bond for a while now, and this performance, completely strung out and trying to solve a mystery, really makes me confident that he would be great. And, not only do we get a killer Dan Stevens performance, we also get a truly special turn from Michael Sheen as the terrifying and intense Malcolm. I haven’t seen a performance from Sheen like this before, but I really thought he was great, adding to the wonderful suspense and mystery that this film built.
The only problem is, I’m not quite positive that I enjoyed the supernatural turn that this film took. The first half, with Dan Stevens wandering around an insane island, trying to stay one step ahead of the diabolical cult that has taken control of a bunch of susceptible people, hoping to save his sister, is a whole lot of fun. It’s tense, it’s mysterious, and I really loved it, throwing a twist on the typical cult story. But then things got downright magical with the revelation that it wasn’t actually a scam, and that there’s a legitimate Goddess living inside the island. It becomes a very different movie at that point. A well-made one, and a genuinely creepy horror film full of some downright terrifying scares. But, for me personally, that twist kind of kept me from loving the film. I know that the cult plot-line has been criticized for being too similar to Wicker Man, and that it wasn’t particularly original, but I thought it was well-done. It had the potential to be a really intense and fun mystery flick. But it kind of got bogged down by this twist, taking things into a place that I don’t think the film handled well enough. If it had been a straightforward cult story it might not have been the most remarkable thing, but I think it would have worked better than it did. It’s a fascinating film, and I still think that it’s worth a watch, I’m just not sure if it survived the twist it took.
Apostle was written and directed by Gareth Evans and released by Netflix, 2018.
Categories: Reel Talk