[This is a re-post of my Apostle review from Fantastic Fest 2018. The movie arrives on Netflix on October 12th.]
You are not ready for Apostle. You may think you’re ready for Apostle, but this brutal piece of British folk horror boasts the kind of crazy butchery that will have you watching through squinted eyes and squirming in your seat. Director Gareth Evans, best known for his action masterpieces The Raid and The Raid 2, trades combat for carnage in his new Netflix film, building a sense of sickening tension for the first half before flaying flesh and mangling bodies with abandon when the cult craziness boils over.
Dan Stevens stars as Thomas Richardson, long lost son to a wealthy father who returns home when he learns his sister has been kidnapped by a mysterious cult and held for ransom on the remote island they call home. His father can do little more than pay the money, so Thomas takes it upon himself to travel to the isolated society called Erisden, where he infiltrates the ranks of the cult and sneaks about at night, looking for the answers that will set his sister free.
Turns out it’s not going to be as easy as paying a fee and taking her home, however, because this cult is desperate after a series of bad harvests — they don’t just want the money, they need it to survive — and that desperation sets off a bloody chain of events that sends Thomas deeper and deeper down a rabbit hole of fractured faith and disturbing truths. As for the cult, they’re headed up by a trio of men who turned their back on the British kingdom to start a civilization of their own, free from war and taxes and all the ills of society. Their remote land is led by Michael Sheen‘s Malcolm, who claims to be a prophet; the voice of a mysterious goddess they call only “her” and “she” in reverent, worshipful tones.
When Thomas arrives on the scene, things get culty in a hurry: no books from the mainland are allowed on the island, days are scheduled rigorously between work and worship, and each new arrival is handed an unexplained “receptacle” to take to their room. When Thomas returns to his room later that night, he learns what they’re for — to be filled with blood and placed outside their doors at night, a disturbing ritual whose rhyme and reason only comes into clarity later in the film.
Indeed, Apostle‘s first half is an incredibly effective and tense mystery box, that establishes one curiosity after the next. Why does the leader have a secret hatch in his floor, and where does it lead? Why are the local teenage lovers sneaking about at night as if their lives depend on the secrecy? And what’s wrong with the livestock, who only give birth to mangled and malformed creatures? Each new shade of sinister undertones helps create an itch of curiosity, but when it comes time for answers Evans doesn’t just scratch the itch, he takes a hatchet to it and lights it on fire.
When it comes time for the violence, Evans doesn’t hold back. We’ve seen what he can do with a fight scene (sorry folks, except for two very brief moments, you won’t find any of those melees here), and with Apostle he proves that his knack for tapping into the visceral transcends beyond kinetic stunt work — he can also make your skin crawl with skull-crunching, flesh-mangling, limb-tearing set-pieces. His kills never lack for creativity, and every character who dies, dies hard. Some, extremely hard, including moments of torture and disembowelment that even had the hardened Fantastic Fest crowd wincing and crying out in disgust.
The gore effects look fantastic, and they’re captured beautifully by cinematographer Matt Flannery, who proves equally adept at lensing the stunning scenery and horrifying violence. The evocative score from Aria Prayogi and Fajar Yuskemal adds another element of technical excellence to the crazy cult shenanigans. Unfortunately, Apostle isn’t a total home run however, and the script falls apart in places, leaving a lot to be desired when character arcs veer off course, often feeling rushed or unearned. The editing could use some finessing as well, including a handful of jarring cuts and a final film that runs a bit too long, while leaving a number of questions unanswered. While we’re talking about downsides, I’ve also got to address the fact that there is a lot of animal violence in this film and it’s not easy to watch. If that’s a deal-breaker for you, Apostle is not going to be your jam… at all.
Ultimately, Apostle is a bit of a mess, but it’s a beautiful, brutal mess that boasts the flourish of Evans’ confident direction and a stellar performance from the immensely watchable and surprising Stevens. His character’s pain and torment runs deep, and Stevens seems to dance above the surface of an endless void, his charm and humor barely concealing the despair within. He gets to swing for the fences with this performance, playing through the extremes of human emotion, and Stevens throws himself at every bit with full-bodied commitment. As always, he’s a delight to watch.
Apostle tackles the subjects of faith and fringe society with a lot of heart and some batshit crazy zeal. This film loves its outsiders, even as it inflicts all manner of torment upon them, and Evans clearly has a blast creating a rich mythology to drop them in. It’s a surprising, sometimes shocking cult horror movie that mixes the legacy of The Wicker Man with carnal, fleshy frights and a hint of freaky folklore. It’ll make you groan and grimace through the torment, but it will get your heart racing in all the right ways, even when it occasionally stumbles over its own ambition.