Netflix’s Apostle comes from the mind of cult director (no pun intended) Gareth Evans, who made his name with The Raid: Redemption and The Raid 2, action thrillers wrapped in the package of video-game concepts, where SWAT teams had to escape mob fortresses. With Apostle, he steps into material that at least on the surface feels a bit more classic, if a bit more overtly horrific too. How does he do with a period piece that calls for at least some kind of commentary on religious fanaticism?
APOSTLE: STREAM IT OR SKIP IT?
The Gist: A man (Dan Stevens) travels to a remote British island in 1905, in search of his sister who’s gone missing among a colony of religious fanatics, led by cult leader Michael Sheen. The residents of the island keep to a strict order and give worship to a kind of harvest deity who must be regularly appeased. The Stevens character is harboring a past; he’s seen some things and has had his brush with religious fanaticism. He connects with Andrea (Lucy Boynton), the daughter of the cult leader but also maybe the only level-headed person on the island. His sister is being held captive and will likely be sacrificed to the island, so time is against him.
What Movies Will It Remind You Of?: Evans has mentioned that films that inspired him include the 1968 Vincent Price movie Witchfinder General, the notorious 1971 Ken Russell film The Devils, and of course the 1973 cult classic (pun kind of intended) The Wicker Man (the original, though we imagine Evans finds some value in the insane Nicolas Cage remake as well). All three films deal with religious fanatics and the loss of equilibrium that comes when the films settle in among their environs. Apostle does that, albeit in the most mud-and-grime-caked way possible. Seriously, these people decided to built their freaky cult paradise on the muddiest island in Britain, and I imagine that is saying something.
Performance Worth Watching: Dan Stevens, as ever, is in possession of the most piercing pair of eyeballs ever seen on films, and he puts those to effective, often frantic use. But Michael Sheen is the standout here. He’s an actor who doesn’t often get credit for his range, but if the same guy who played persistent, bicycle-riding, “Chums”-watching, London Olympics skeptic Wesley Snipes on 30 Rock can also play this domineering religious leader with such three-dimensional menace, well, that right there is an actor. What’s better is that Evans’ script takes Sheen’s character beyond where you might expect. These stories often tend to show the cult leader as implacable evil, but Sheen shows the vulnerable man behind the curtain, and it’s quite unexpected.
Memorable Dialogue: Stevens’ character explains to Andrea that the cross-shaped scar on his back was the result of missionary work during the Boxer Rebellion. “I once held fast a belief in the divine,” he says. “Like you, I knelt before a deity. Armed with a book of Jesus Christ, I led my parish into the heart of Peking. We showed them the glory and the love of God Himself. And then they showed us the devil.”
It is a VERY curious choice to include this brief and largely context-free flashback to Stevens being tortured by the Chinese, a cross branded onto his back. The scene as it’s filmed is breathtaking, but without allowing the Chinese even so much as a speaking part, it feels unavoidably racist. It’s not the only problem the film has with representation, as it trucks in all sorts of disturbing imagery about the violence done by men to women without giving even one female character more than a token sidelined role.
Single Best Shot: Rather than restrict us to one, I included two shots from the film’s most stomach-churning moment, a “purification” ritual for a cult member deemed guilty by accusation of a crime he didn’t commit. The camera is off-kilter and out of control as we see the ringleader flanked by a pair of black-hooded acolytes, and then we get a look at the instrument of pain: a giant drill about to bore into a skull. Between the size of the drill and the rust clearly visible, it’s a wonder you don’t pass out.
Sex and Skin: None, really, which is probably the only saving grace for this movie that treats women poorly enough as it is.
Our Take: By side-stepping a lot of the usual plot beats of a lost-in-cultland movie, Apostle keeps the audience guessing. But while there are a few moments of genuine, artful terror, most of the scariest moment are scary because they’re so unrelentingly violent. On one level … hey, it works. You’ll be on the edge of your seat for the entire second half. On the other hand, you’ll want to shower afterwards.
Our Call: Stream It.