“Apostle” Movie Review

If ever one needed a reminder of why never to start a separate “commune” or new belief system, here’s a great example. At the end of the day, it can only end badly for people on all sides. This period folk horror drama from The Raid writer-director Gareth Evans initially premiered at the 2018 Fantastic Fest to a wealth of positive reviews. It was then released on the streaming service Netflix and a handful of specialty theaters on October 12th. Following the huge international success of his Indonesian action films Merantu, The Raid, and The Raid 2, Evans next set his sights on a film set in the English-speaking world. Rather than capitalize on his success in the action genre, he decided to try his hand at an idea that had apparently been burning in his mind for a while. Set in 1905 England, Dan Stevens stars as Thomas Richardson, a drifting young man who has become disillusioned from faith and his privileged family. He returns when he learns how his young innocent sister Jennifer has been kidnapped and being held for ransom by a dangerous religious cult on a remote Welsh island. Led by the Prophet Malcolm Howe, they believe in a great goddess of the island who gives them everything, including crops and water. Thomas travels to this island in an attempt to rescue his sister, learning of the cult’s truly dark rituals on the way. Confession time: I have still yet to watch either installments of The Raid, which seems to be heresy in the realm of action movie fans. Don’t ask why, it’s just been a very complicated, and thus far unsuccessful, endeavor to seek it out. Regardless, I’d been very interested in watching such a curious project, especially one I can watch alone in the dark at night from the comfort of my living room. It had also been marketed by some as The Raid meets The Wicker Man. (Original one, NOT the Nic Cage remake) I was surprised to learn, however, that Gareth Evans decided to take the route he did with Apostle, and it was a pleasant surprise. This is one of the better Netflix Originals to come out and just a great horror movie in general. In all of cinema, there is perhaps nothing that terrifies or disturbs me more than the occult or those who follow it. Previously, a sci-fi film released this year called The Endless by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead also dealt with that tough niche to really thought-provoking results. Apostle seeks to address that once more with its own original take on the occult, and it’s no less disturbing. Watching the citizens of this island blindly participate or comply with some truly horrific actions, for no other reason than “It was as She commanded” is unsettling to say the least. In fact, the film as a whole is an indictment of faith and how people have used it to justify acts of violence dealt out to those who don’t believe like them. Worse still, the cult’s beliefs are shown to be quite sane, but they still exploit it for personal gain. It begs the question of whether humans are naturally violent creatures and whether virtue is impossible in our world- at least without vice. Dan Stevens has impressed me with his FX show Legion, and I dare say his performance here is on par with it. As Thomas, he’s cynical and dark after losing his faith in God, telling one person, “Beware false profits, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly, they are ravening wolves.” There’s quite a bit of physicality to the role, and it soon becomes clear that he’ll do anything to rescue his beloved sister. Opposite him, Michael Sheen does tremendous work as Prophet Malcolm Howe, one of the most intriguing villains in a film this year. With a charismatic presence and a sharp tongue, you can clearly see how he was able to persuade an entire chunk of the British population of his Goddess’ existence and importance. His daughter is played by Lucy Boynton, and she helps to create a fascinating dynamic with him. As with the children of the other two founders, there is a clear disconnect between what he preaches and what she wants in life; she sees Thomas as her first insight into the real world off the island. Mark Lewis Jones is convincingly creepy and gross as Quinn, Prophet Malcolm’s right-hand man and enforcer. We can tell there is a lot of pent-up anger and jealousy within him, even as he silently carries out his duties. As for the technical aspects, Apostle is pretty distinguished in a year filled with great horror movies. Matt Flannery’s cinematography, also responsible for both installments of The Raid, is as stunning and visually appealing as the island on which it is set. When there are action scenes in the film, they show in their full, brutal glory without lingering too long to become gratuitous. Evans also shows off his talents as an editor with a kinetic yet patient form of cutting the scenes. With each cut, you can practically feel every crunched bone and cut flesh in the fights, adding to the brutality. What’s more is that the houses and sets for the village itself are brilliant and period accurate. It feels as though there’s a whole history to it, as the houses all look handcrafted and incredibly lived-in. Meanwhile, Aria Prayogi and Fajar Yuskemal both compose the musical score for Apostle, in addition to being the primary sound designers. While there are a handful of tracks that ultimately go to the horror cliché of sudden strings for jumpscares, for the most part it’s pretty respectable. It has a rather uneasy and atmospheric tone throughout, signifying that something is seriously wrong with both this place and its inhabitants. Like a lot of great folk horror stories, it doesn’t try to be obvious a lot of the time, but it does build in intensity when needed to. While overall it was a highly entertaining and gripping thriller with some interesting things to say, the film felt maybe 15 minutes too long. With the mythology that Evans has built here, there is inevitably some fat to be found that could have been trimmed down. The first hour or so is very slow rolling, with some dialogue or scenes that seem a tad out of place. However, it’s mostly redeemed in the satisfying and brutal conclusion, which is likely going to keep me thinking for a little while. Apostle is a brilliant genre melting pot in a great backdrop. This certainly ranks among the more unique horror films to be released this year, in large part thanks to the conviction of both Gareth Evans and Dan Stevens. Stay as far away from cults as you can, but watch this movie from the comfort of your home.

 

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