Gareth Evans might be one of the more underappreciated directors working today. With gonzo hits like The Raid and The Raid 2 already in his filmography, it makes one wonder: why exactly hasn’t he become more widely known? Like you, I’m stumped there, but Netflix is hoping that Apostle helps Evans take the next leap in his career.
The following review will be spoiler free.
Directed By: Gareth Evans
Written By: Gareth Evans
Starring: Dan Stevens, Michael Sheen, Lucy Boynton, Mark Lewis Jones, Bill Milner, Jennifer Rhys, Kristin Ffion, Blake Ridder with Annes Elwy and Sebastian McCheyne as ‘The Grinder’
After some harrowing experiences during a missionary retreat, former priest Thomas Richardson (Stevens) has become a nihilist and drug-addicted vagrant. He has seemingly disappeared from society, many have presumed him dead. When his sister Jennifer (Rhys) is kidnapped by a mysterious cult situated in a remote island and led by self-proclaimed prophet Malcolm (Sheen), Thomas is called upon by his family to safe her. Since Jennifer is the last beacon of light for Thomas, he agrees, not caring whether he lives or dies in the process.
As Thomas infiltrates the cult, he quickly discovers the brutal practices to which this cult defends itself against any threats or interlocuters. But the true terror lies in the origins of this cult, the secret of their divination, something that will challenge everything Thomas has ever believed in. And as the murderous cost of maintaining their domination on the island grows, salvation seems continuously hopeless.
If you’re an action-movie lover you should know the name of Gareth Evans. This is because he has directed a few of the greatest actions films of recent decade: The Raid and it’s grander sequel, The Raid 2. His technical affinity for the action genre had caught the eye of Hollywood executives, who offered him the directing duties of The Justice league Dark movie.
Evans could have easily become fodder for mainstream superhero schlock but opted instead to write and direct a picture closer to his heart. Much to everyone’s surprise, this new project is far away from his comfort zone of action genre. Instead he has written a directed the occult horror film Apostle, a loving tribute to the British folklore horror films such as The Wicker Man — the one without a deranged Nicolas Cage punching a woman in a bear-suit.
Before Netflix acquired the rights, the early screening reviews seems quite promising. The trailer seemed to promise gruesome thrills. There were old-fashioned torture devices, the prospect of going through a meat-grinder and turning into a bloody pulp. A darkly cult has always been an ideal subject for a horror film, as has been exploited in classic horror films from Rosemary’s Baby to modern ones such as Hereditary.
A Thrilling Ride
The Grinder (Sebastian McCheyne) hard at work… image via Bustle
Notable for being an action-director, it has to be said that the action in Apostle is fantastically choreographed. One particular scene especially, involving a character called ‘The Grinder’, was an exciting and gruesome delight.
The inventive camera angles by Evans would make the likes of Sam Raimi proud — and Evans has stated how he’s a big fan of the Evil Dead series. Though the film isn’t a martial-arts film, the few fight scenes in the film feel visceral and authentic.
An Unpredictable Plot
At first it seemed that the film gave away its secret far too early. Even though you already suspect this cult to be quite nefarious, this is quickly confirmed when we see an innocent person becoming a victim of their corrupt practices. However, the film has so many more surprises in store. Characters take a different turn throughout the movie, they will reveal themselves to be less wicked than initially perceived or turn out to be harrowing monsters.
The ultimate reveal of the powers within the island is revealed satisfactorily, without too much exposition and leaving just enough for the viewer’s imagination. Especially during the third-act, I was on the edge of my seat, wondering where Evans would take me next.
Not Very Scary
The film works better as an bloody-thriller than a truly scary film. There’s one genuinely creepy moment that comes in around the first hour mark, but most of the times, the horror relies on the threat of gory ultra-violence.
This is not necessarily a bad thing, as these sequences are masterfully directed by Evans. You’ll be on the edge of your seat as the plot moves from one shocking turn to the next. Despite the film taking its time with a two-hour runtime, the atmosphere never manages to creep inside you.
In the end, it’s a matter of taste: if you prefer a creepfest, something that crawls inside your skin like Hereditary for example, then Apostle won’t really satisfy. If you instead want to see an exciting and unsettling thriller, with strong horror elements, then Apostle is a more than an excellent contender.
I can appreciate both kinds and since Apostle has a lot of meaty substance to it, I have no personal complaints in this area.
While I cannot delve too deep into its themes, the film does venture into one of my favorite subjects: humanity’s need to create a Utopian paradise. We see how corruption can fester in a seemingly perfectly utopia, something we’ve seen countless times through history, and how this can ensue in numerous human-rights horrors.
While I do wish this film could have gone a little deeper into the subject, it’s nice to see a horror film about cult worship that isn’t just about ”how evil a cult is” but more about how good intentions can sometimes lead to harrowing results.
A Little Too Polished
A small nitpick but an important one, is that everything seems a little too polished a times. Characters seem a little too pretty, not what you would expect in that time period, especially in such a remote island. While this didn’t really bother me much, it does take away from the grit, something which I think the story could have used a little more off.
The film’s main problems lie within the script, especially with the film’s emotional core — the relationship between Thomas and his sister- not being developed enough. Thomas tells the audience that she means everything to him but it would have been nice to see some flashback of their relationship, something that would make their possible reunion to the film — won’t spoil if this actually happens or not — more emotionally engaging.
Another issue lies with the third-act turn. While it’s a thrilling twist, the sudden anarchy that ensues could have been better developed. One character take such a drastic villainous turn, that it almost feels like it came out of nowhere. It might have been hinted at before, but the drastic actions he undertakes are so severe that it could have used some more development.
Even with its two-hour runtime, some more time could have been spend to properly develop some of these characters.
A thrilling period horror film delving into the frightening phenomena of cult worship, fanatic religious idolatry and humanity’s disastrous attempts at creating a utopia.
As a horror film, it does lack genuine scares, but Evans’ directing, especially concerning the ultra-violent set-pieces, more than makes up for it. Despite its two-hour runtime, it could have spent more time developing the characters, especially the relationship between Thomas and his sister which ignites the film’s plot.
The third act, while certainly packed with thrills, also has a character change and anarchic turmoil that should have been built up more. It also is a little polished in areas, lacking in grit, with some characters looking a little too pretty and made-up for the time-period.
But there’s no denying that this is one of the better horror films coming out this Halloween. It’s also a horror film with a lot more substance to it, something I cannot delve into without spoiling the plot. It also shows the diverse directing talents of Gareth Evans. Whatever his next project will be, it’s certainly one to look out for.
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