Apostle / ****

6v793cnp1cd11As someone who truly loved Gareth Evan’s The Raid (and really, really liked the sequel a lot as well, even if it’s not quite as flawlessly compact and efficient), I’ve been eager to see what else Evans had in his bag of tricks beyond action. So when I first saw the trailer for his Netflix film Apostle, I was fascinated. I might have expected a lot of things from Evans, but giving him a chance to basically take on a Wicker Man-style folk horror film about a religious cult where a young girl disappeared? Color me intrigued.

Apostle undeniably shows a new side of Evans, one focused on style and mood over action. Every frame of Apostle feels immaculately crafted, from the fog-soaked streets of the city to the shadowy tunnels underneath the religious retreat where most of the film takes place. Evans makes it clear early on that there’s more to this story than just a religious cult, tipping his hand towards supernatural events in quiet ways that lead to more questions than answers, and constantly upping the sense of dread with ghostly apparitions and impossible moments.

The story seems simple enough at first, following a twitchy, driven Dan Stevens as he slowly infiltrates this isolated island community to find his sister, who’s being held for ransom by the cult. He attends services led by the charismatic head of the group (played by Michael Sheen, who’s fantastic), strikes up a companionship with a young man who’s having an illicit affair with another cult member, and tries to avoid detection as Sheen’s paranoia builds. All good enough, as long as you don’t worry too much about how everyone has to leave blood in jars outside, or why there are tunnels to that strange house in the woods, or what the references to the “Heathen Stand” are all about.

No, it’s evident from early on that something is wrong here, and that’s really the major flaw of Apostle. While movies like The Wicker Man leaned into ambiguity, giving you something that could easily be ominous or utopian, the cult of Apostle never feels like one that would actually work. It’s too evidently the result of something deeply “wrong,” too clearly an organization protecting its secrets and working on something unwholesome. And while we get the sense that we’re seeing the unraveling of something that’s been falling apart for a while now, none of it makes the cult any more plausible, which is something that good folk horror really needs if it’s going to work entirely.

But, for all of that, Apostle stills gets under the skin, exploring its ideas of religious zealotry and cruelty in unexpected ways, especially as we start learning more about why Stevens’s investigator is so unsettled constantly. And while the film goes in some directions that are more Clive Barker than Wicker Man, Evans steers into the horror of it all beautifully, delivering some genuinely unsettling sequences and a command of mood that’s absolutely relentless in the final act of the film.

And for those who wonder if Evans could bring the same brutality to bear here that he did in The Raid, rest assured, he can. Apostle‘s gore and violence isn’t as omnipresent as I assumed it might be, but it’s used effectively and to maximum impact, emphasizing the ways that people will use religion for power and control, and how violence is so often linked with that desire. Does it once again raise questions of exactly why people would ever join this religion? Oh, undeniably…but as a piece of a horror film, Apostle‘s visceral violence packs a punch and then some.

Apostle is flawed, unmistakably, but it’s also a success in that it shows that Evans is so much more than “the guy who made the best martial arts movie of all time.” (My opinion.) With a command of style, tone, mood, and pacing, Apostle got under my skin, and even if it all is less than the sum of its parts, there are some really good parts in there, and reassures me that Evans will be more than just a one-trick pony. Add to that compelling performances by Stevens and Sheen, to say nothing of a few truly nightmarish moments, and you’ve got yourself an enjoyable, if not great, piece of horror for the Halloween season.


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