Apostle movie review: Gareth Evans' period horror-thriller amazes and frustrates in equal measure
Despite some memorable imagery, Apostle is weighed down by the ballast that draws our attention away from what it has to say.
castDan Stevens, Lucy Boynton, Mark Lewis Jones, Bill Milner, Kristine Froseth, Michael Sheen
If Apostle is any indication, its director — and gifted choreographer of astounding action sequences — Gareth Evans appears to be heading down the path so well shod by Ben Wheatley, a director wholly adherent to a unique vision approached through wildly different genres and upheld by consummate technical skill. And quite like Wheatley, the viewer following Evans’ work should be prepared for manic jabs at ambition that risk failing to achieve their ends as often as they succeed against all odds. Apostle falls squarely in the former category. But not before managing to surprise, astound, amaze and frustrate the audience in equal portions during its two-hour runtime.
Apostle casts Dan Stevens as Thomas Richardson, a troubled man on a mission to rescue his sister from a religious cult settled on an isolated island. That’s the set-up, really. He arrives to find that things aren’t as simple as they seem and that he might be in for the long haul before making contact with his sister. Things take their course the way they often do in horror films, moving steadily alongside the phantom of the unknown that threatens to reveal itself any given second. When it eventually does, Evans tries to break from genre tradition in a grisly, violent and macabre manner the viewers of his previous films should be used to.
But unlike Wheatley’s excellent Kill List, where the shifting of gears left us spellbound, Apostle rolls up its sleeves and comes at us like a blinded animal, tripping, huffing, puffing and rolling in dirt. The squalor it engenders finally loses its minuscule charm when Evans throws in his signature action scenes, which, rather uncharacteristically, fail to generate any impact. Despite some memorable imagery — in particular a wasting, old woman barely surviving on blood, attended by a disturbingly imagined servant and torturer, Apostle is weighed down by the ballast that draws our attention away from what it has to say.
Evans’ protagonists usually possess, or come into possession of, skill-sets that help them confront the terrifying injustices of the world around them. But Thomas isn’t one of them. He barely manages to survive within the cult, more often than not owing to the kindness of strangers. Even in the little fighting that he does, he doesn’t come across as more capable than everyone else. He is notably passive when confronting the two leaders of the cult. He isn’t even averse to tricking his way by hook or by crook. This is definitely new territory for Evans’ leading men. It is a laudable effort because it gives room for growth to his secondary characters, no longer at the mercy of an overweening narrative. Prophet Malcolm, possibly the most impactful of all characters, and his private and public battle with ambition lend the film its finest moments. Evans would have done the film a great service had he chosen to delve into that aspect instead of protracting some of the bloody sequences that mar the narrative.
Evans’ films stand out for their choreography and the efficiency with which he milks the essence of his simple set-ups using impressive, often awesome, camerawork. It makes up for the basic delineation of character and Manichean binaries. Upholding all this is cogent storytelling serviced by memorable action scenes. Even the sprawling The Raid 2 made up for its narrative flaws and loose ends with almost magical camerawork and set-pieces. Apostle throws up a moment or two of the kind, but never comes close to the achievements of his earlier films. The action, so essential to those films, could simply have been avoided in this one, or placed with more conviction. It comes across as an afterthought and, as noted earlier, draws attention away from the film.
In the long run, Apostle won’t be among the more memorable entries from this hugely gifted director’s work. Hopefully, it will mark the birth pangs that are suffered by a vision expanding its horizons into uncharted territories. Evans is an intrepid artist. It is customary that we celebrate his failures while aptly critiquing them. His unfettered way of looking at the world underpins the crests of Apostle, even if the ambition comfortably evades his grasp. But what else is human endeavour all about!
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