By Casey Campbell
Gareth Evans proved himself in 2011 with The Raid: Redemption, and then its sequel three years later. As some of the best, most stunningly shot and brilliantly choreographed martial arts movies ever made, Evans pushed against the grain of traditional and easy action. The man understands action, because first, he understands the medium of film. With clear composition and fluid motion, Evans captures action so well because he fundamentally gets that movies should be visually pleasing. In those films, he allowed the performers to perform, rather than go the lazy route of cutting and editing around stuntmen.
With this understanding of Evans, none should be surprised that he helms horror as well as he does his action titles. His most recent work, Apostle, is no soft stuff, while being entirely antagonistic to all things humane and decent. It slowly builds up, leading to one of the more brazen conclusions of the year.
Apostle follows Thomas Richardson (a consistently excellent Dan Stevens), a man seeking to save his sister from a cult of religious zealots on an isolated island. Despite being, from the outside, a tired tale of a man on a rescue mission, it quickly affirms itself as something strictly other. It does what few mainstream horror titles do: it puts a focus on earning your interest, and then your fear. It doesn’t depend on the frustrating jump scare, nor does it take the audience’s intelligence for granted. Apostle sets up the central character and location, then slowly meanders into territory wholly unexpected. Some may find the first half slow, but it’s very much a film that rewards patience.
Evans’ immaculate use of tension propels what could’ve been a standard horror movie to another level. Most films utilize tension in a scene by scene basis. For example, his Raid films use tension in order to make the subsequent fight scene that much more exciting. He makes you want the clash to happen. Here, he uses the first half of the movie to prepare for the final half. And it works, miraculously. Questions asked about the island and cult are answered in full, and not only does it work, it feels rewarding.
Like Evans’ first Raid film (if only titularly), Apostle deals with redemption. Richardson opens the film as a broken man, but we don’t know what caused this — at least not initially. In the opening scene, we learn that Richardson was thought to be dead. Later, we find out he had just returned from a missionary trip that almost took his life, and ultimately did take his faith. By diving head first into a new religious atmosphere to save his sister, Richardson gets a second chance and finally grapples with his past.
Most of the first half of the film revolves around Richardson investigating the island for clues to where his sister hides away. Soon, he begins to acknowledge the inherent danger he faces through the mission, and sees sinister things going on. He watches a woman bleed her arm, jars filled with blood line the hallway he stays on, and a group of thugs make a man disappear. The first half of the movie offers plenty of interesting tidbits to hold you over. At the very least, the attentive movie watcher will look forward to the unearthing of answers to the many weird clues littered throughout.
Apostle makes you question the reality of the situation. At the beginning, you rightfully question the zealotry of the island dwellers. Film cults are rarely the groups you root for, nor are they supposed to be the understood party in a movie. They’re traditionally the crazy group whose violent ways lead them down a dark path. But here, the cult strays from the generic. The cult is certainly weird, but could there be an actually compelling reason as to why? I would say yes, but I also don’t want to divulge any of the more exciting plot developments that happen later into the second and third acts.
As much as the film excels with thrills and overall atmosphere, Apostle still stumbles at parts. There were several instances where I had to use hindsight to question something that happened earlier. For fear of delving into spoilers, I won’t go into specifics. But, a character in the third act shows herself unable to move, despite the fact that we see her several times earlier in the film. It was just a weird addition that could be explained a bit better by the cult leader.
Despite the minor inconsistencies, Apostle firmly plants itself as one of the best straight-to-Netflix movies available. It has atmosphere, acting, and solid direction. I only wish I could’ve experienced it on the big screen, rather than on my TV.