Sometimes all it takes is a word or two to pique your interest. With Apostle, a seemingly nasty horror movie about cults, blood, and torture (which I would normally skip) those words were ‘Gareth Evans’. Writer / Director Evans is best known for the heart-racing and kinetic ‘The Raid', but equally stunning is his lesser known work of ‘Merantau'. With a signature in-your-face style and a flair for capturing edge of the seat tension, simply seeing his name was enough to make me decide that Apostle would be worth a watch.
Anyone who has seen horror classic ‘The Wicker Man' will catch on quickly to how Apostle opens. Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) is the dark horse of a rich family. He is tasked with going to retrieve his kidnapped sister who is being held by a secretive and secluded cult on an isolated island. He is told that under no circumstances is he to pay the ransom. Thus begins an immediately tense set up which Evans directs perfectly. For the first hour of the movie Richardson is constantly on his guard. The cult, even by Thomas’ experience, seem off.
Charismatic leader Malcolm, played by the always engaging Michael Sheen (Home Again, review here), leads a congregation in worship of ‘Her’. It isn’t clear who ‘she’ is, or the tenets of the community’s belief. But it IS clear that people have to bleed themselves at night and leave the blood outside at night as an offering…
Evans skulks the camera around with Thomas as he investigates. We peer through windows and spy suspicious activities. Dan Stevens puts in a measured and intense performance. He speaks little but enunciates each growled world with barely contained anger. The superbly suspenseful score by Aria Prayogi and Fajar Yuskemal is throbbing, but minimalist. Clattering wooden strikes, and metallic clangs increase in speed and urgency during key moments which almost drives your pulse to match. You wait for it all to kick off with baited breath.
But Apostle does something odd with that tension; after a brief “arrrghh!!” moment (wading chin deep in a blood and excrement sewer doesn’t often lead to nice things) the supposedly minor forbidden love sub-plot takes over. One hour in to have such a great build up kept on hold whilst two lovelorn characters sneak around is jarring. But it becomes clear that the unsanctioned tryst between these two young lovers is actually just a device to ignite the tonal shift from tense ‘what’s going on’ to ultra violent blood and guts time. And that’s when things go rather awry.
The problem is one of set up and pay off. Apostle teases things like a supernatural element, doubt as to Prophet Malcolm’s intentions, and what will happen once Thomas is inevitably discovered. But once these things come to bear the result is less ‘Wicker Man’ and more ‘Saw’. Thriller becomes horror. Atmosphere swaps out for buckets of blood. Drill bits bore into brains. Fingers are mangled. Rape and blood sacrifice is threatened. Evans paints with such a broad brush that many large plot holes form which usually boils down to, ‘but why?’
Malcolm gets embroiled in a power struggle with another founding member, but why? Pleas of ‘follow me’ are made to enlist the other cult members despite their opinion or support never being shown to matter. Why don’t the cult, in actual fact, just go somewhere else? Of course we are supposed to ignore such frivolities and enjoy (or wince at) the unfurling nastiness on screen but after such a great nail biting opening Act I couldn’t help but be disappointed by the gear change to blood bath.
I suppose the worst criticism I can level at Apostle is that, as writer and director, Evans has indulged himself in throwing everything at the screen regardless of plotting issues. Whilst this does so much of the good work a disservice (Michael Sheen has much less to do in the second half of the movie, which is a shame) it also means that, much like The Raid before it, Apostle is an unquestionably intense experience. Evans wisely holds back from showing excessive detail when we get to the horrible parts, instead showing quick cuts that repulse but don’t drive you away. It could all have gotten visceral to the point of unwatchable and it takes an experienced hand to know how to keep that balance.
Apostle literally means ‘one who is sent off’ in order to deliver a message. Gareth Evans wants us to know he can do more than visceral martial arts, and that message has definitely been received.
Words by Michael Record