I may be in the minority, but I am always a fan of directors stepping outside of their comfort zone, pursuing genres that differ from their last success. Gareth Evans (The Raid 1 & 2) has done just this with Apostle, a gruesome horror film that delves into man’s faith, fear, and the possible ramifications when the two work in tandem. An ambitious endeavor that occasionally becomes lost in this ambition, but in that ambition is a promising new chapter in Evans’ career.
Set in 1905, Dan Stevens (The Guest) stars as Thomas Richardson, a man with a conflicted past on a mission to rescue his sister held captive by a cult on a remote island. Thomas quickly learns that the cult, led by Prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen), practices more than a perverted interpretation of scripture. Instead, their interpretation has leaked into their foul practices. What ensues is a test of Thomas’s physical and mental endurance as he battles the forces at work on the island, both human and spiritual. Apostle is very much a reflective tale that challenges the audience to consider which they are more dedicated to, their faith or family.
Before delving into what Apostle does well, I must note that it drags considerably for much of the first act. As in, things don’t get going for almost the first hour. I don’t consider this to be a slow burn; instead this pacing is due to Evans having become lost in his ambition for this religious separatists tale. An inordinate amount of time is dedicated to Thomas wandering the island conversing with various characters, though we never feel as we’re learning anything imperative to the story. There’s always a looming sense of dread hovering over the island’s inhabitants, but it takes a while before this dread occurs. Several scenes drag on as they allude to Thomas’s backstory, which I never found to be very compelling.
Considering I was a fan of Dan Stevens’ excellent performance in the psychological thriller series Legion, I had high expectations for him as a leading man. Sadly, those expectations were never met. Stevens spends much of Apostle making his signature crazy eyes at the audience. His dialogue often lacks substance except for a particular monologue in which he divulges information regarding his past. Most of the time he is growling or grunting his lines with an unnaturally deep voice that seems like an artificial attempt to appear more masculine. It’s not a persona that fits him well and comes off as somewhat forced. His performance never made me feel that his casting was imperative to telling Thomas Richardson’s story, which would have made me care more for the character and his plight.
Where Stevens feels out of place, it is Michael Sheen (Frost/Nixon) who is right at home as he gives an enigmatic performance as Prophet Malcolm. His character undertakes the most radical shifts in personality and being, making him hardly recognizable by the film’s conclusion, which is a testament to his dedication for the role. Had it not been for his performance, I would have struggled to elect a standout actor amongst the cast.
Despite its pacing issues and Stevens’ underwhelming performance, Gareth Evans has sprinkled numerous memorable scenes and shots throughout. The island coast and forest make for a gorgeous contrast to the blasphemous acts that occur on their mainland. Despite this being a very different film than Evans’s The Raid series, his signature flair for graphic violence is woven into the fabric of Apostle. The more that Richardson uncovers about the cult and their blasphemous ways, the more blood begins to flow. As the Prophet Malcolm’s island paradise begins to unravel, so does the framework of the society that the cult has crafted. It’s the small details that Evans introduces that make the Island setting feel like a living breathing place. As Thomas begins to investigate their activities, he picks up on their habits which become stranger and stranger, until the rather explosive ending.
One unsettling scene, in particular, involves strapping a “heathen” to a stone slab in the center of town, his head shaved and a drilling device fixated upon the top of his skull. Its moments of violence are seldom, but instantly memorable in their viciousness, which I find to be an admirable trait of directors smartly affecting the audience.
Apostle feels like it was made for those who didn’t enjoy 2015’s The Witch, as it deals with much of the same religious subject matter, but with more violence and memorable violence at that. I resist to suggest it’s more “action-packed,” but in regards to this comparison, it would be apt. At times Gareth Evans undoubtedly becomes lost in his scope, as it periodically neglects to respect the audience’s time. Another example of a film that would have benefited mainly from being cut to under two hours. But within those two hours and ten minutes is numerous memorable shots and tells a creepy occult mystery that reveals the true heretic amongst man, is the man himself.
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