The easiest point of comparison for what The Raid maestro Gareth Evans has cooked up with Apostle, now available on Netflix, is Robin Hardy’s cult classic about cults, The Wicker Man. After all, both films center around a man investigating an island cult in the hopes of locating a vanished girl. In the case of junkie ruin Thomas (Dan Stevens, somehow even twitchier than he is on Legion every week), the girl is his beloved younger sister who was abducted and held for ransom by a cult led by a self-declared prophet, Malcolm (Michael Sheen), in service of a supposed goddess.
But whereas Hardy used the investigation as a framing device to depict the clash between conservative Christianity and unhinged pagan delights, Evans is less interested in the religion itself than he is in capturing the way humans (men, in particular) pervert faith in the service of power, and in the way that faith can mutate to both imprison and liberate a soul, whether that’s faith in a god or God, faith in oneself, or simply faith in something, anything.
Also, I mean, I haven’t seen Wicker Man in a bit, but I don’t believe it featured a close quarters knife battle rendered with kinetic camerawork, exhilarating choreography, and rhythmic editing that has you hopping up and down in ecstatic terror and excitement. But Apostle sure as hell does, because when you’re the director of The Raid, you can’t not be the director of The Raid even when you’ve moved to another world entirely.
It’s also customary for folk horror to leave supernatural elements either minimized or absent entirely. There might be an occasional whiff of the ineffable and the inhuman, but usually the threat is limited to “crazy people with sharp sticks gonna get me.” I don’t want to dive too deep into the secrets at the heart of Apostle, but within minutes of the film’s opening Evans tips his hand that there are overtly supernatural goings on going on, adding even more ax blades swinging just above Thomas’s head.
He’s already got his hands full with Malcolm and the rest of the community into which he has stepped. The island is run by a triumvirate including Malcolm, as the head of the faith; Frank (Paul Higgins), who arranges transportation to and from the island; and Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones), who does the dirty work that needs doing to keep the island secure and people in line.
But there are pockets of dissent already starting to bubble up even before Thomas begins creeping around and stirring up trouble. Frank’s son Jeremy (Bill Milner) and Quinn’s daughter Ffion (Kristine Froseth) have fallen in love and plot to build a life away from their fathers, and Malcolm’s daughter Andrea (Lucy Boynton) is unsure of her own place within the island community, concerns only stoked by the arrival of the brooding, driven Thomas.
And as if these tensions weren’t already accelerating, the island is facing a sudden shortage of crops and a blight upon their livestock. The arrival of Thomas seems to sound the starting bell, and soon all these conflicts begin speeding towards an explosion.
A meat explosion, because people get wrecked in this film.
Anyone who has enjoyed either of The Raids knows that Evan is no soft touch when it comes to the gory good stuff, but while there are eventually some truly historic acts of flesh vandalism within Apostle, Evans takes his sweet time getting there. I’m not sure if I would describe Apostle as a slow burn, as it moves with a constant sense of propulsive momentum (Evans, acting again as his own editor again, is one of the best filmmakers working at making sure that a picture moves), but it is deliberate in the way it parcels out information about how both the island and Thomas came to be as damaged and haunted as they currently are.
With his lanky build, Stevens at first seems well suited to the type of hard-charging action we know Evans to favor, but director and actor are after different game. Stevens is cut from the same leading man cloth as Chris Pine or Tom Hardy, seemingly ashamed of their matinee idol good looks and determined to live them down by playing characters as removed from polite society as possible. It’s quickly evident that Thomas is in no state, physical or mental, for this assignment, and Stevens endures a Bruce Campbell-ian tonnage of humiliations and bodily traumas during his quest. Whatever you think about Stevens as an actor, you can’t fault the guy on sheer commitment, and he pours everything he has into capturing the physical and emotional anguish Thomas endures as the island strips him down to an exposed nerve.
No one else has as much to work with, but Millner and Froseth are plenty appealing as young innocents blissfully unaware of the darkness surrounding their love. Boynton, so electric in Sing Street, isn’t given all that much to play, but she’s a substantial screen presence and bounces well off Stevens.
Michael Sheen is no stranger to delivering a big fat slice of ham when called upon, but Malcolm is a more slippery creation than that. While he initially seems positioned as the Big Bad behind the cult, Evans continues to reveal more and more about the nature of both the cult’s beliefs and Malcolm’s own faith, and the Sheen’s performance evolves with each new revelation. Whether Malcolm is a monster or a victim himself is one of the questions that is left maddeningly teased by the film’s end.
But about Jones’s Quinn, there can be no doubt. He’s a straight-up monster, and while Jones spends the early goings watching from the margins, he steps forward in Apostle’s second half as one the year’s best villains, an inhuman abomination who is all too human in both his motives and methods. Apostle doesn’t feel particularly tied to any specific political moment, but watching the way Quinn gains and eventually wields power is depressingly familiar in this day and age, resulting in a hiss-worthy antagonist whose comeuppance can’t come quickly enough.
On a technical level, while Apostle is not the radical leap in terms of technique that The Raid was from Evans’ feature debut Merantau (or The Raid 2 was from the first film), you can feel Evans honing his voice to a razor fineness. He is joined once again by cinematographer Matt Flannery and composers/sound designers Aruia Prayogi and Fajar Yuskemal, and it’s clear that this team knows exactly how to enhance each others’ strengths. Flannery paints in earth tones of green and brown and black, the copious foliage at times seeming to swallow the actors alive, the dense darks of haunted underground passageways pregnant with potential dangers. Meanwhile, Prayogi and Yuskemal’s score laces the film with dread only to explode into dynamism when the last act is left off the chain.
The madness of the film’s finale may feel somewhat familiar to anyone who has watched “Safe Haven,” the V/H/S 2 segment directed by Evans and Timo Headshot Tjahjanto, but the apocalyptic mayhem Evans unleashes feels all the more satisfying because the ramp up has been so deliciously extended. Glad as I am that Netflix allowed this film to happen, there are images and payoffs in this last stretch that I wish I could have seen with a crowd, Evans tapping into the lizard brain of his audience to deliver both visceral satisfaction and horror.
While Apostle may not reach the dizzying heights of exhilaration of The Raid duology, it’s nonetheless a wildly successful horror film with surprising depth and melancholy offsetting the expected bloodletting. With each successive film, Gareth Evans continues to prove himself as one of the most wildly accomplished filmmakers of his generation, and I expect Apostle will find itself in regular rotation among the horror-loving set.