Film Critic Matt Taylor is awestruck by Apostle, a graphic yet thoughtful horror from the director of The Raid
There are few things I love more than a solid, director-driven project. In the world of film, almost nothing compares to watching the vision of a brilliant mind play out, and being able to bask in its glory. This year has witnessed plenty of examples already (Annihilation, Hereditary, even movies like Mission: Impossible – Fallout), and the newest of this bunch is Gareth Evans’ Apostle (a Netflix Original horror). It’s a film that is unflinching in its brutality (as you might expect from the director of The Raid series), yet is also extremely tender – the themes at its core are family and faith. It takes inspiration from classic horrors like The Wicker Man, but decides that they aren’t violent or disconcerting enough, so dials everything up to eleven. It is decidedly not a film for the faint of heart.
A quick plot summary: Dan Stevens’ character makes a visit to a mysterious island to rescue his kidnapped sister. Throw in some suspicious happenings and a sinister religious cult, and the result is among the most disturbing horrors of recent years. To help realise his vision, Evans needs a fantastic cast in front of his camera – and, boy, does he have it. Dan Stevens is on top form as Thomas Richardson, channelling his stoic and unsettling quietness from The Guest, and throwing in a dash of his more tender side, as we saw in Beauty and the Beast. Michael Sheen plays Malcolm, prophet and leader of the island. Sheen has a fantastic screen presence, commanding everything around him with his booming voice. Malcolm himself is conflicted; he’s trying to do his best for his people, but his methods are extremely questionable. Lucy Boynton plays Malcolm’s daughter Andrea with warmth and loyalty, both to her father and to Thomas; Mark Lewis Jones is wonderfully intimidating as Quinn, one of the island’s founders; Bill Milner and Kristine Froseth add more heart to the proceedings, playing a young couple with plans to elope; and Paul Higgins is brilliantly suited to the role of Frank, a founder who’s slowly becoming disillusioned with everything he, Quinn and Malcolm supposedly stand for.
Gareth Evans has a fantastic way with tone which, when combined with Matt Flannery’s superbly disturbing cinematography (and a score from Fajar Yusekemal and Aria Prayogi that will set your teeth on edge) creates a wonderfully dark and intense atmosphere that never lets up for the film’s two-hour-and-nine-minute runtime. The cinematography is indeed among the film’s highlights; Flannery’s camerawork is tremendous. He uses a mix of handheld and stationary cameras to make sure we’re never quite at ease. This is never more evident than in a scene of ‘purification’: a character is secured to a table with vices on his arms and legs, and one for his head. Due to his struggling, the vice on his head is extremely tight; we see and feel its tightening from their point of view, as the camera jerks violently to the right to face upwards in three or four movements, before a jet of red bursts across the screen, signifying a burst eye. It’s a wickedly gruesome shot that actually made me yell out loud (something that never happens). It also sets the precedent for the entire film – Apostle is unrelentingly brutal.
Much of that comes from Evans’ first-rate direction. As he showed with his two Raid movies, he has an exceptional skill for directing action, and things are no different here. Though the ‘action’ scenes themselves are few and far between (purely due to the film’s nature as a slow-burner, as well as being a horror instead of a straight-up action flick), the ones we do get are brilliantly shot and fantastically choreographed. The atmosphere of the film is so fierce that the action scenes serve almost as a breather. Evans has a tendency to use longer takes to keep things flowing, and as a result everything feels extremely visceral. The angles of the camera particularly help with this: we’re always extremely close by any of the horrific goings on, to the point where it feels like we are the ones being impaled with spears, or having our throats cut. There’s no apology here either. As with The Raid, Evans holds nothing back, neither from his action nor his vision as writer and director. He takes every aspect of the film and runs with it until he can’t carry it any further.
As graphic as the film is, it is also surprisingly tender. Apostle is built around the whole idea of family. Thomas’ quest for his sister Jennifer is of course what drives the narrative, but the secondary characters explore parent-child relationships in an interesting manner. Some will do anything to protect their family from their religious ideologies, while others will do anything to protect their religious ideologies from their family – it’s at once poignant and scary. The idea of religion also plays an essential role in the atmosphere. Due to his travels around the world, Thomas has entirely lost his faith in God, and that’s something that bleeds into the rest of the film. We see a line in the trailer that tells us ‘your God can’t help you’, and the film’s tagline lets us know that ‘the promise of the divine is but an illusion’. It’s a dour stance to take, and – while I’m sure it will annoy plenty of people – it’s a fascinating examination of what happens when one loses one’s faith, before being presented with an unimaginable evil that stems from the divine, but manifests itself in humanity.
Due to the fantastic balance Apostle strikes between all these factors, it feels like something entirely new. It marks a step away from the conventional horrors of today, and is all the better for doing so. It is unrelentingly, unapologetically disturbing, yet so commanding over its viewer. As much as you might want to, out of fear or disgust, you won’t be able to tear your eyes away.
Verdict: I have never seen anything like Apostle before, and I don’t think I ever will again. Gareth Evans is a masterful director, and what he’s given us here is a brutal, visionary horror that pulls no punches, and reaps the terrifying rewards.