A man infiltrates an isolated cult to rescue his sister in turn-of-the-century Wales.
Directed by Gareth Evans
Starring Dan Stevens, Michael Sheen, and Lucy Boynton
Review by Jon Kissel
As Thomas uncovers what’s happening on the island in his search for his sister, Evans introduces the top tier of the island’s society. Malcolm’s co-leaders, Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones) and Frank (Paul Higgins), all arrived together years ago as escaped convicts and founded the community. Quinn’s daughter Ffion (Kristine Froseth) and Frank’s son Jeremy (Bill Milner) are engaged in a secret and forbidden love affair, which Thomas discovers and uses to make Jeremy help him. Malcolm’s daughter Andrea (Lucy Boynton), a respected figure in the town as the de facto medic, crosses paths with Thomas when he’s injured while stopping an assassination attempt on Malcolm. Most of these characters will be dead by the time the credits roll, as Jeremy and Ffion’s affair triggers a long-simmering coup attempt by Quinn and upsets Thomas’ efforts to sneak his sister out quietly. Nothing happens quietly in this film.
For most of the film’s first hour, there’s the strong possibility that this is going to be about a con put on by Malcolm and the others. An early shot suggests as much, where Thomas approaches the village for the first time and sees a cross cresting a hill, only for the cross to be revealed as a ship drug ashore, in the process of being dismantled. Instead, Apostle is in communication with the pre-Christian mysticism of druids and cairns and nature spirits. There is indeed magic on the island in the form of a crone who controls plant growth. The convicts captured her and restrained her, force feeding her animal blood at first and then human blood when an escalation was required. Horrifically introduced in a subterranean blood sewer that Stevens hides in, the crone’s emergence starts a transition within the film from a taut thriller to an over-the-top gorefest, a transition that works in moments but not in total.
As Evans gets further away from a straightforward infiltration, the film suffers from storytelling gaps on both a plot and character level. Hints at certain belief systems or motivations are abandoned, leaving the cult itself as a poorly sketched belief system that submits meekly to a takeover by Quinn and the small handful of guards. What else is keeping the average cultist passive? Why keeps them there in the first place, beyond a thinly sketched vision of a socialist paradise? For a film not afraid of flashbacks, one between Thomas and his sister was needed to establish their bond. Without it, Stevens’ cross-eyed final moments have to do too much of the heavy lifting. A lot of the creepier details that Evans includes seem to be there simply because they’re creepy. The children wear masks during a celebration feast because it builds atmosphere, not because of any custom or ritual. The Grinder, a character who tends to the captured Crone, is completely mysterious. He’s scary, sure, but who or what is he? The centerpiece squirmfest, Jeremy’s execution by brain drill, implies a previous use, but something so grisly seems beyond the capabilities of Malcolm or Frank, to say nothing of Andrea. She’s going to sit back and watch silently while her father turns the crank, and then continue to stick up for him to Thomas?
I don’t need a film to answer everything, but I do need it to hold together once the tension or the thrill of a particularly well-constructed setpiece has worn off. Put the cool or weird or gonzo stuff in your film, but find a basis for it. Much of Apostle is simply too thin, or operates on shorthand and assumption. The relationship between Ffion and Jeremy, obviously doomed by how happy both actors are playing it, is taboo because… why, exactly? The assumption that Evans wants to play off of is premarital sex in restrictive societies, but how about the assumption that the sires of a community’s powerful families should get together for an arranged union, befitting the aristocracy of the British empire? There’s obviously families in the cult, why not this family in particular? For that matter, where are the mothers of Ffion, Jeremy, and Andrea? How did Malcolm recruit new members? Pretty much every decision or result in Apostle can be held up to this kind of questioning, a fatal flaw when it becomes clear that Evans doesn’t have that much on his mind and mainly wants to wow and awe and terrify his audience.
It’s here that Apostle is most successful. Evans plays with angles and perspective in a way that I love. The first-person view of Jeremy having his head tightened in a vice is painfully evocative, a sadistic masterstroke accomplished with a few drops of red. Led by cinematographer Matt Flannery, all of Apostle’s camera tricks work, from something as simple as accentuating the whites of Stevens’ eyes in the blood tunnel to something as flashy as 360-degree spins. Evans’ taste for gore gets healthily indulged, not in an exploitative or cheap way but in an earned and withheld way that demonstrates both the fragility and the resilience of a human body. Apostle’s sound design and score are also memorable in the particular way that horror movies must be, especially where it concerns whatever noises are coming out of the crone or the Grinder.
To a large extent, Apostle was always going to a can’t-miss for me, coming as it does from a highly-regarded director working in a favorite subgenre on a preferred subject. That its storytelling is a mess and its arcs rely on faith rediscovery tropes that I don’t enjoy is a great disappointment. The Raid: Redemption is as simple as survival, the closest a film can come to a video game plot while not being based on a video game, and it’s great. Evans might not have a head for complexity. My understanding of his current project, a rough-and-tumble English gang serial, gets him back to his roots, and not the kind of roots that need a magical nature spirit to make them take hold. That’s probably where he needs to be. C