APOSTLE Review: Extremism of Multiple Kinds
The year is 1905 when Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) arrives on the shore of Erisden, an isolated island community run by a man who calls himself Prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen). Even before Thomas has reached the central township where the cult resides, three seeming crucifixes crookedly loom over the crest of the hill like sentinels waiting to pass judgement on the prospective entrants. “Beware ye who enter this place with ill will,” they seem to say.
Thomas, in fact, is not entering with good intentions, at least not towards the cult and its leaders. They have kidnapped Thomas’ sister and hold her for ransom, as she comes from a wealthy family, and he is there to free her. As he searches the community for her, the rifts within the cult begin to widen, and dark forces on the island reveal themselves.
The isolated island and dabbling in paganism seem to suggest a Wicker Man setup with a slow, helpless descent into psychological horror. Those familiar with writer/director Gareth Evans’ work on the Raid films - two masterclass examples of brutal action cinema - will know to expect something much bolder than that. Evans builds his narrative on a slow-burning fuse to a powder keg of visceral violence that explodes upon the first concrete intrusion of the supernatural into the story.
Up to that point, the narrative seems to meander as it introduces the strange dynamics at play on the island. Dan Stevens serves as a wonderful conduit for discovery, his blue-eyed scowl demonstrating a deep skepticism and crafty paranoia. He portrays Thomas as light on his feet, able to quickly assess any situation and exploit it to his advantage, often to morally dubious ends. The nature of his circumstances feeds into a past of religious trauma and violence.
What Thomas finds throughout the village seems inexplicable. The cult worships an unseen deity of some sort, whom they refer to as She. Villagers make blood sacrifices, cutting themselves to collect jars of their own fluids to leave outside their doors at night. Even the key Thomas receives for his room is designed to draw blood. Supposedly the sacrifices are to bring prosperity to the island, allowing crops to thrive and animals to breed. Much time has passed since that was a reality. The land is visibly corrupted, an aesthetic evident in the set design of the faded wood of the buildings and twisted, dead branches that seem to be in abundant supply. A sickness thrives here, and even the walls of Thomas’ room seem to glisten as though painted with blood, even before any blood is spilled.
And boy does much blood get spilled in Apostle’s second half, where Evans is more than willing to get excessively weird and vicious. Jaws will hit the floor at the savagery on display here, with extended sequences of gore and viscera-laden brutality spilling out from the supernatural horror. Appendages mangled, flesh pierced, rivers of gore, and one exceptionally disturbing torture device included, the extreme violence is not for the faint of heart. As horrible to behold as it is fascinating for its bizarre, gonzo audacity - qualities that Evans carries over from his V/H/S/2 segment “Safe Haven,” the highlight of that anthology - it is not employed merely for its own sake. Evans seems genuinely interested in how humanity bends forces beyond its control to their own extreme will. The suggestion seems to be that terrible, abhorrent violence is the inevitable outcome.
Apostle is currently streaming on Netflix.