If director Gareth Evans wanted to prove that he can move away from his martial arts, action film background he certainly succeeds with his new film Apostle. Evans, who also wrote the film, has made something completely different than Merantau, The Raid, and The Raid 2. The only thing that comes close to Apostle is his segment Safe Haven in V/H/S/2, where a supernatural cult is infiltrated by a news crew. The same basic premise follows here, except instead of modern day Indonesia, Apostle takes place in 1905 on a remote island off the English coast. While each of Evans’ previous efforts are more focused, Apostle tries to do so much at once that it doesn’t successfully come together.
Dan Stevens plays Thomas Richardson, a man searching for his sister on the island inhabited by a cult run by Prophet Malcom (Michael Sheen). Stevens is well-cast in the role, playing an addict with a dark past who’s desperate to save his sister. And when Thomas encounters the odd and unexplainable, Stevens sells each haunted look. The cult followers blindly live on the island, putting their trust in Malcom. The devotees believe it’s an escape from the oppression of the mainland, but Malcom and his henchman have their own system of control. Thomas gradually learns something truly sinister is working behind the scenes — the first clue comes during his first night, when he sees each of his cabinmates have poured some of their blood in jars as part of a ritual. Why exactly does the cult need blood? Well, it doesn’t take long to find out.
The mystery quickly unfolds as its genre elements multiply. It’s a drama period piece at first, but then it dives right into being a supernatural horror film. Thomas swims through a man-made river of blood and encounters a straight-up demon, but isn’t phased by its existence, jumping right into the drama at hand. Evans doesn’t exactly know how to balance each element; he does make the film an unnerving experience, even though it feels like he’s haphazardly tossing so much up on the screen.
It very briefly reaches the extremes seen in Safe Haven and even has some, and I mean some, bits that’ll remind you of the well-choreographed fights in the Raid films. It screams Gareth Evans, just not necessarily the Gareth Evans we’re accustomed to. It’s more an experiment by a director carving out his own path. Though, in Evans wanting to explore many genres, he sacrifices the narrative. An overruling system run by men, where women are put on the bottom rung — its political stance is clear, but muddled by the film’s tangents.
A medieval torture device used to drill the skull; a centuries-old, blood-devouring demon; a masked agent of evil who bags and hangs the island-dwellers to squeeze them of all their bodily fluids; all horrifying, but the true horror, unsurprisingly, turns out to be man. Sheen digs into his villain role, savoring every line. But the real standout is Mark Lewis Jones, playing Quinn, one of the island’s original founders. His booming voice makes him a formidable and dangerous force on the island. The major running subplot has Quinn’s daughter falling in love with a young man, much to Quinn’s rage. This is Evans’ strongest plotline, as one man brutally murders for purely selfish reasons, and uses the cult to hide his bloodlust.
In the end Apostle succeeds as a true calling card of Gareth Evans’ talent — because of its slick photography alone, the film should be screened on the biggest screen possible, Netflix be damned. Evans is one to watch and Apostle shows that. Here’s to the writer-director diving into more genre films, with a better focus on streamlined stories.