Ambitious and unsettling, Netflix’s Apostle delivers prestige horror in this early 1900s tale of kidnapping, zealotry, and the perversion of power. Written and directed by Gareth Evans, Apostle features breathtaking scenery, a hauntingly off-kilter score, and a nearly-unrecognizable Michael Sheen as the captivating cult leader Malcolm. The story itself digs into religion, cults, mythology, and faith as the ultimate ghost stories, and acknowledges that the corruption and violence of man is the truest hell there is.
Thomas (Dan Stevens), a man presumed dead by the outside world, is sent to infiltrate the cult of Erisden to rescue his sister, Jennifer. Jennifer has been kidnapped by the isolated, island-dwelling group and a ransom letter was sent to their wealthy invalid father. Ignoring his disagreements with his father, a permanently brooding (and possibly addicted?) Thomas is told to keep his wits about him, and quickly sees evidence of the dark and violent nature of Erisden. Lead by Malcolm (a phenomenal Michael Sheen), the community promises complete freedom – no taxes, no money, food for all – if you follow his word.
Governed by a curfew and the Gospel According to Malcolm, the dutiful community is almost as paranoid as its founder and his security force, led by Malcolm’s friend Quinn. Not everyone seems so compliant, and Malcolm’s daughter, Andrea, shows both skills beyond what the patriarchal village generally allows, and empathy for those deemed heretical enemies. Thomas searches for Jennifer while trying to understand Malcolm, Erisden, and the island’s strange secrets, and hoping he doesn’t find himself “purified” like other nonbelievers before him.
As Thomas, Stevens broods and glowers with the best of them, wringing surprising subtlety out of what, in less capable hands, could have been a one-note performance. Lucy Boynton’s execution gives Andrea the presence to hold her own against Thomas and her father Malcolm, even with comparatively less screen time. Kristine Froseth as naïve lovebird and Quinn’s daughter Ffion perfectly captures an earnest mix of dutiful daughter, pious believer, and hopeful young woman in love.
From the start, Apostle sets the tone with opening credits that are reminiscent of a Bible: dark gold lettering over dark black brown leather. They build to a sharp, disturbing exhalation of sound, like when trains cars pass each other in opposite directions. This sets the tone for the rich audio-visual experience of the entire film. The muted greys and greens create a damp feeling of desperation and moments of immense intensity are often shot from an unusual perspective, adding to the confusion and mania. The music creates a stressful soundscape, as off-kilter sounds and solitary notes plucked out unexpectedly work together to turn the screw.
While some aspects of the story practically jump out at you – the young lovers seem doomed from the moment we learn of their existence – most of the secrets of the island will keep you guessing well past the two-thirds mark of the film. Indeed, much of the suspense and fear of the film is wrought from an inability to nail down what kind of story it wants to be. Is it based in control and crowd psychology, a la “The Lottery”? Is it supernatural? Is it something else entirely? Who on the island is to be trusted, and who’s a true believer? What do they even believe, anyway?
From an animal birth and straightforward violence to truly imaginative ways to make a person’s skin crawl, Apostle has plenty of gruesome and ghoulish moments. There’s an earthy realism to the violence, the visceral reality of post-mortem twitches and how long it really takes for life to drain out of someone, and just an overwhelming amount of blood and gore shown on screen. Much of Apostle is written and shot like it’s putting all of its chips on suspense to scare you, but when it comes down to it, this movie is not afraid to get down in the muck, and then some.
The wild and rugged landscape of writer/director Gareth Evans’s own Wales is used to great effect, emphasizing the isolation of the island, and the group’s utter dependence on Malcolm and his wisdom for their survival. There are clues to the location of the island, like the text of the boat ticket and references to the crown, but clearer scene setting would ground the audience without losing that sense of bewilderment. Likewise, the array of Celtic and Celtic-adjacent accents and backstory to the cult’s founding tie into a specific history that would have enriched the story, but the script seems more interested in genericism than mining the ties to persecution and paganism that go so well with Apostle’s themes.
Given the two-hour runtime, it’s frustrating that a few of the relationships aren’t more clearly expressed at the outset. On a few occasions, a character’s actions don’t fully make sense until a later scene clarifies their family members or role within Erisden. There could certainly be cuts made to the overall length that might make the film feel more taut, and a deeply negative take on Peking feels unnecessarily extreme and racially charged without any examination of the dynamics created by missionaries. It’s an odd miss in an otherwise-thoughtful film that’s ambitious in what it has to say about religion and power.
Ultimately, this chilling fever-dream elevates what could have been merely a violent take on a strange but fascinating little story. Apostle demonstrates superb execution all around, from the performances and scenery to the cinematography and score. Prepare for a full two hours of full-body stress as Apostle slowly unveils its unsettling secrets and surprising narrative, punctuated by bloody, visceral violence.
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