Writer/director Gareth Evans has already made his immortal mark on action filmmaking with The Raid and The Raid 2. They are two of the greatest action films ever made. While I could watch Evans make Raid films for another 20 years with no complaints, I admire that he wanted to grow and do something different. Though we shouldn’t be so surprised he handles horror so well. He co-directed the V/H/S 2 segment “Safe Haven” which is not just the best segment of that film, but also the best segment in the found footage franchise, and coincidentally also follows the infiltration of a dangerous cult. Evans has crafted a magnificent work of horror in Apostle, the easy comparison would be The Wicker Man, but even that doesn’t accurately describe how gnarly and evil this film is. It’s one of the best films Netflix has produced, and sets a new bar in the limitless ability of Gareth Evans.
Apostle takes place in the 1905 and follows Thomas (Dan Stevens), a man with a mysterious past who journeys to a secluded island called Erisden to infiltrate a dangerous religious cult led by the prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen), who have kidnapped the sister of Thomas for ransom. Saying anything else would ruin the bonkers and horrifying surprises Evans has in store.
I never watched Downton Abbey, where Dan Stevens got his big break, but I still found my way to him. Back in 2014 I went to the theater and inadvertently had a Dan Stevens double feature with A Walk Among the Tombstones and The Guest. Both were completely different performances, showcasing the ridiculous range and ability of Stevens (Sidenote: The Guest is one of my favorite films of the decade, and Stevens’ performance in it is a big part of why). Dan Stevens is currently batting .1000 in his choice of genre film roles. Sure, it’s just two (The Guest and Apostle), but both are fantastic choices. Stevens has this steely intensity about him that serves Apostle well. There’s an animalistic nature to him as he lumps around with a slight limp. One character remarks on him, “Your eyes….they’ve seen things.” which about sums up what Stevens is capable of. You don’t know much about him, you don’t know his past, but you feel the impact it has had on him thanks to the sheer screen presence of Stevens. The sheer amount of pain and physical punishment Thomas gets put through is impressive, only Arkin from The Collector/Collection bests him, and Stevens is there through it all, doing it all himself. While I want the best things for Stevens, I would also be totally fine if he just became a genre film actor, because he picks those roles and filmmakers so well.
Michael Sheen has never phoned in a performance (watch the Twilight films for reference, dude is balling out in those films) and doesn’t start here. He’s magnetic and charismatic while portraying a sense of humility and warmth only we and Thomas know is false as the enigmatic leader of Erisden. As the film continues, the allegiances and motivations of the characters shift in unpredictable and interesting ways, Sheen’s in particular and it’s great to watch him balance it all. Capable and enjoyable performances from talents like Lucy Boynton, Mark Lewis Jones and Kristine Froseth round out the cast.
One of my gripes with just about every Netflix film is that I would have rather watched it on the big screen in theaters, and this film especially so. Gareth Evans is a filmmaker who deserves to be watched in the biggest cinematic format possible. I might have died of sheer happiness if The Raid films had been released in IMAX. The cinematography by Matt Flannery is magnificent, making exquisite use of natural lighting to enhance the foreboding and menacing feel of the island, that there is something darker than we could have imagined at work. There are truly horrifying and incredible images concocted by Flannery and Evans, a burning cross in a burning field at the lowest point in one character’s life is transcendent. This film is rich with not always subtle but potent religious imagery. There’s a literal sacrificial lamb minutes in for foreshadowing. At one point, in extreme pain and suffering, Thomas kneels at a small tree like Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane. Yeah, it’s all about as subtle as a burning cross, but it’s still electrifying. And of course, the action scenes are exquisite and rank among the best this year because it’s Evans. Aria Prayogi and Fajar Yuskemal craft an intriguing score. There are traces of Nick Cave and Warren Ellis in the score, imagine if they crafted a tense work of horror.
It’s quite a long film at 2 hours and 10 minutes, but I wouldn’t cut anything from it. At one point I paused it to go to the bathroom and was astonished I still had an hour and a half left. Turns out I still had 90 minutes of terror and delight. This film goes up several levels, this film goes to 11. At one point I was exclaiming profanities at my tv screen in wonder and shock at where this film was going. I kept wondering if the film would go in a certain direction, if it would cross a line, and it went several miles past it. It’s glorious. Regarding the ending, I have no clue what it means either, but could it have ended any other way? Could we really expect it to tidy itself up after all the anarchy we witnessed beforehand? Thank the lord and whatever pagan deity you worship for this film.