Have recent news reports on the possibly inevitable ramifications of climate change put you in the mood to absorb some masochistically anxiety-stoking imagery involving the juxtaposition of lush greenery with horrific bodily destruction? If so, rush right out to the theatre (or just to your nearest Netflix-equipped device) and see Apostle, Gareth Evans’ grisly new action/horror joint, which provides such imagery in abundance.
Set in England in 1905, Apostle follows Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) on a quest to rescue his sister (Elen Rhys) from a religious cult that has abducted her and is holding her for ransom. Posing as an aspiring cult member, Thomas infiltrates the group’s island compound and starts poking around for info on his sister’s whereabouts. But it’s not long before the group’s leader Prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen) suspects an interloper and becomes obsessed with exposing them before Thomas can find his sister and uncover the cult’s horrifying secrets.
Apostle’s first half is a masterful slow burn, peppered with unsettling little glimpses at just what the hell might really be going on here — is Prophet Malcolm an abusive charlatan, or a man with a real connection to a powerful spiritual being? We don’t learn very much about the actual beliefs or practices of the cult; Prophet Malcolm gives a speech alluding to his belief in social equality for all, something he apparently believes can only be achieved on his little island, but it’s not really clear why. Concerns about the vagueness of the cult’s goals are sufficiently batted away (at least for a while) by Evans’ dedication to creating indelibly scary images. (One of these images, involving a frightening entity briefly glimpsed through a crack in a floorboard, keeps popping back into my head no matter how much I wish it wouldn’t.)
But as Apostle approaches its climax, it becomes increasingly convoluted and eventually strains credulity and patience. Gaps in the narrative that at first seemed like an artful exercise in restraint begin to feel more like half-baked ideas that were unceremoniously abandoned. The film’s final act employs a weird strategy of piling on more—more magic, more monsters, more violence, more backstory intertwining the human characters with all the magic and and monsters and violence—without managing to make any of these developments feel like a natural outgrowth of what came before. Major plot threads evaporate into thin air, and subplots involving secret affairs and jockeying for position between cult members turn out to be basically irrelevant.
Even more disappointing, when the gore gets more frequent and extreme, it simultaneously gets dumber and less inventive. The ghoulishly poetic visuals of the first half (a subterranean tunnel runs red with blood! eviscerated bodies and blooming vegetation share the frame with a tension that feels downright primordial!) gives way to flat, broad torture porn (people get squished by stuff). Much like the cult it depicts, Apostle has a lot of powerful forces at its disposal, but can’t seem to marshal those forces well enough to define its goals, much less achieve them.