‘Apostle’ Review: Dan Stevens Leads a Solid, But Unremarkable Cult Thriller
Gareth Evans captivated audiences in 2011 with The Raid, a pulse-pounding action-thriller that showcased his fascination with Indonesian martial arts as well as an exceptional knack for editing and fight choreography. For his fifth feature, Apostle, the Welsh filmmaker ditches many of the elements with which his name has become synonymous in favor of a grim fable about a religious cult in the early 20th century. It’s solid enough, though you’d probably never suspect Evans directed it if his name wasn’t in the credits.
Set in 1905, Apostle follows Thomas Richardson (a very game Dan Stevens) as he infiltrates the mysterious cult that’s kidnapped his sister. Led by self-proclaimed Prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen), the group lives in isolation — and increasing paranoia — on an island off the British coast. It doesn’t take long for Thomas to figure out that nothing is quite as it seems, whether it be Malcolm’s righteousness or his promises of bountiful harvests. And then there are the strange glass jars referred to as “receptacles,” which the residents fill with blood and leave outside their doors at night. Far more disturbing than these offerings are to whom they’re being offered, and to what sinister — and supernatural — purpose.
There is some action, but Apostle is largely missing the thrills of Evans’ previous efforts. Here, he’s more preoccupied with the gruesome and visceral. As Stevens’ Thomas digs deeper into the cult’s machinations, he finds himself swimming in a literal river of s—t and blood. It’s squirm-inducing at times and darkly comedic at others; sometimes it’s both, as when Malcolm, rooting out a suspected spy, forces a lineup of men to recite gospel from his holy book. It seems that Thomas is about to be found out until another man blows his cover, all hell abruptly breaks loose and he’s impaled by Malcolm’s guards.
Apostle is quite watchable and never boring, necessarily, but it is incredibly familiar. The Wicker Man is an obvious influence — there is literally a wicker man in this movie; a weird, violent minion whose face is obscured by a helmet that looks like a wicker basket. But Evans owes as much to Robin Hardy’s cult classic as he does to more recent films like Darren Aronofsky’s mother! and Martin Scorsese’s Silence. On a metaphorical level, Apostle is concerned with the nexus of religion and nature, and with the manmade cycle of exploitation, appropriation, and violence. It posits that no one religion is any worse or different than the next, and that — like that tired idiom about guns — gods don’t kill people. People kill people.
Sub-plots involving Malcolm’s sister and a relationship between two teenaged lovers contribute an additional thematic layer about abuses of power and institutionalized misogyny. These are further underscored (and honestly, somewhat confused) by the supernatural concept behind the religious cult. One could easily lose count of the numerous metaphors, including self-cannibalization, the violence of consumerism, and the use of religion to excuse any manner of terrible deeds. Where Aronofsky and Scorsese’s films were thoughtful, multi-layered allegories (though with wildly differing approaches), Apostle feels too crowded with ideas for any one to stand out long enough to stick. And that’s before the film’s final shot, which essentially shoots all of its previous thematic overtures in the foot.
Evans’ latest was created for Netflix, whose only real film interests appear to be quantity over quality. Though handsomely shot for the most part, Apostle looks and feels like a movie you’d watch at home on a Saturday afternoon, the flimsier CGI components inevitably muddied further by the platform’s streaming speeds (mileage may vary depending on your internet service provider). Perhaps the element most lacking in Apostle, aside from any truly engaging action sequences, is the skillful editing showcased in Evans previous action films. This feels clunky, and the surplus of metaphor only exacerbates things.
Apostle is a solid mystery-thriller, but save for predictably engaging performances from Stevens and Sheen, it’s largely unremarkable. Though it’s interesting to see Evans tackle something a little more conventional, this feels almost too conventional for the man who gave us The Raid and its sequel. But it’s just basic enough for something like Netflix. Maybe that’s the point.