Apostle film review
★★★★Directed by: #GarethEvans
Written by: Gareth Evans
Gareth Evans, whose feature-length credits include the Indonesian Raid films, enters the more mainstream #horror genre with a bang – and a conflagration, along with bloody sacrifices. His #Netflix project Apostle, starring Downton Abbey alum Dan Stevens, also of Legion fame, blends horror subgenres, offers wonderfully austere visuals and builds unique characters, each of whom resides on a frightening Welsh island for a specific purpose. These many variables coalesce into a complex, multidimensional and piercingly memorable project.
Stevens is a serviceable lead, as the cynical former Christian missionary, Thomas Richardson. He stacks up nicely against Michael Sheen (Passengers), who plays cult leader and ‘prophet,’ Malcolm Howe, and the film’s most haunting presence (even more so than a fragile, cannibalistic deity), Mark Lewis Jones, who plays Howe’s henchman, Quinn. Apostle is graced with strong performances from this ensemble, which also includes Lucy Boynton, who plays Howe’s guiltless daughter, Andrea. Nevertheless, Apostle is carried through its 129-minute runtime by macabre visuals (i.e., hooded fanatics, a bleak countryside, a backwoods hideaway), careful, cinematic restraint and sound narrative structure.
In the film, Richardson travels to a remote Welsh island to falsely assimilate into Howe’s cult, anchored by bloodletting, treasonous preaching and harsh consequences for wandering after curfew. The cult had informed the Richardson estate that Thomas’ sister, Jennifer (Elen Rhys), was abducted by the cult for ransom. Richardson, scarred from his days in Peking during the Boxer Rebellion, has nothing to lose on his quest to rescue his sister. But first, he must lie low and earn the trust of the cult’s three-person counsel, of sorts, including ex-convicts Quinn and Frank (Paul Higgins).
Malcolm’s daughter, Lucy, stands as a legitimate distraction to Thomas, as she becomes a potential love interest. Yet, Thomas must blackmail a leader’s son, Jeremy (Bill Milner), to assist him as he looks to free his sister and learn more about the bedrock of the mysterious Welsh island.
Apostle is a film you simply cannot turn away from, as each beat, and each frame, is packed with fine detail and plot-progressing clues. The barren darkness and the silhouetted frames before raging bonfires easily impress themselves into your memory, while the cultish ritual is perfectly eerie. Outside of production values – which match the era in dress, dialogue and cultural influence – the film’s structure is sound, as the plot essentially thickens through each act.
That is to say that Thomas’ journey transforms from one of vengeance to horrific curiosity, to sheer survival. Unlike many formulaic films, Apostle stands alone as it seems to mix projects like M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, Ari Aster’s Hereditary and Robert Eggers’ The Witch, among others.
The folk horror project is distinct, pointed, nuanced and expeditious – as it flows at a sinister tempo toward its climactic moments with a mutated caregiver, fervent devotees and the island’s crop-repelling soil.
Evans’ attention to detail is commendable, thanks to the full frames from cinematographer Matt Flannery. Even as Evans introduces more conflict, with characters left vulnerable to hellish ritual and medieval torture tools, the lure of the island alone is enough to keep viewers engaged. Like the American smash hit Lost, the island becomes a character in and of itself – although with much darker context.
Thematically, Apostle shows viewers how blind faith can be detrimental in a world that demands conscience and reason. The cult’s adherents come to the one-time-wasteland as a way to escape societal pressures, but their hopes are shattered as they learn that one cannot flourish, over time, by trampling others.
Apostle makes for quality viewing, backed by a strong ensemble performance and historical accuracy, along with grit, gore and a willingness to skew the genre at will.