Netflix's New Thriller 'Apostle' Is a Wild Ride Into the World of a Bloodthirsty Cult
Dan Stevens makes a great puzzled face, which comes in handy throughout Netflix's brutal, pulverizing thriller Apostle. Within the opening minutes, the star of FX's dense superhero mind-fuck Legion, cast here as opium addict and early 20th century failson Thomas Richardson on a mission to rip his sister from the clutches of a merciless cult, furrows his brow, widens his eyes, and purses his lips in a state of handsome confusion. As the plot slowly unfolds and takes curious detours on the way to a thunderous conclusion, Stevens becomes an ideal audience surrogate: He's not totally sure what's going on here either.
In a less stylistically pleasurable and gruesomely staged movie, that type of narrative chin-stroking might become frustrating. Luckily, Apostle was written and directed by Gareth Evans, the filmmaker behind the expertly choreographed hand-to-hand combat classic The Raid: Redemption and its ambitious sequel The Raid 2, and he brings a type of macho formalism to the material. Even at its schlockiest points, which include a few moments that might call to mind Neil LaBute's widely-mocked remake of The Wicker Man starring Nicolas Cage, this is still a painstakingly assembled work of glossy pulp.
Instead of relying on his gifts as a fight movie technician, Evans has charted a different course for himself. Apostle isn't an action movie and it's not exactly a horror movie either, though there are sudden bursts of violence and supernatural terrors to be found. Instead, he's crafted a grimy period piece that puts lofty, unresolvable questions about fanaticism through a creaky, hand-operated torture device.
Before the grisly carnage, there's some low-key detective work for Stevens to attend to. While attempting to kick a drug problem, his Richardson arrives on the fog-drenched island of Erisden, a fictional stretch of land where his beloved sister Jennifer (Elen Rhys) has been taken captive by a group of religious zealots. Traveling a great distance and going undercover in the name of family is a fairly standard Gothic trope, particularly if your lead is a dashing heathen seeking spiritual redemption, so some of the slowly paced opening passages resemble any number of atmospheric BBC dramas (or FX's Taboo, starring Tom Hardy) you might've streamed recently. It takes time for Apostle to reveal its true nature.
Still, the more we learn about the specifics of the cult and its unconventional practices, the more compelling the movie becomes. The community, which is struggling to appease a mysterious primal force that keeps its crops fresh, is lorded over by a true believer with a bushy beard and closely cropped hair-cut named Father Malcolm. He's played with unnerving intensity by the Welsh actor Michael Sheen, who really is drinking the whole milkshake and going full Daniel Plainview with each sermon-like monologue, self-lacerating confession, and act of cleansing sadism. Similarly, the hard-charging score courtesy of composers Fajar Yusekemal and Aria Prayogi, who also handled the music on both of The Raid films, has clangy echoes of Johnny Greenwood's manically taut There Will Be Blood compositions.
That mentor-and-mentee dynamic between Richardson and Malcolm is the most compelling aspect of the film, but Evans provides a handful of subplots as well: There's Richardson's budding relationship with Father Malcolm's daughter Andrea (Lucy Boynton); a young couple looking to escape the more Puritanical impulses of the island; and Malcolm's untrustworthy right-hand-man Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones), who eventually stages his own inter-cult coup. Weaving these threads together grows challenging for Evans at certain points, especially as the tension builds and you begin to sense that he really wants to just unleash hell, but the concerted effort and relative restraint is admirable. Like Christopher Nolan or Christopher McQuarrie, Evans is a director who always seeks to dutifully show his work. Even the stretches of tedium contribute to the overall mood of queasy despair.
Eventually, Apostle does swan-dive into the abyss. Where some cult films prefer to explore the ambiguity of societies ruled by charismatic religious leaders and passed-on bits of folklore, refusing to answer whether the evil force they serve is "real" or not, it quickly becomes apparent that the weary citizens of Erisden were at the very least correct to fear the god-like creature they pay bloody tribute to. There's some serious shit afoot; along the way, appendages are lost and stabbings occur. As the fundamental truth about the island is revealed, Stevens shifts from looking bewildered to astonished. His face becomes the rock that Evans builds his church on.