A horror film about an unhinged religious cult that tortures folks to “purify” them is exactly as savage and ruthless as you would expect from the dude behind one of the greatest action franchises ever. Gareth Evans first turned heads with The Raid and then twisted them completely off with its sequel; so it’s no surprise that he brought that same bloody brand of shock and awe craft to Apostle—people bleed in this movie. In this one, a drifter on a dangerous mission to rescue his kidnapped sister tangles with a sinister religious cult on an isolated island.
I thought for sure that after his brilliant turn in The Guest, we were going to see a lot of Dan Stevens in the genre. And while that didn’t quite work out, I’m glad to see him here because he’s really meant for this kind of stuff—a brooding Dan Stevens is the best Dan Stevens, and no one has a better scowl than this man. This really has nothing to do with my critique of the film itself, I just wanted to point out my appreciation for Stevens’ ability to always look like he’s about to murder someone with a hatchet. Moving on.
For a movie that’s over two hours long, Evans wastes no time getting right to the heartbeat of his malevolent story, which is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, I felt that the story hits its stride very early on because Evans smartly keeps a lot of it under a veil of mystery. And because he’s also teasing the terrible horrors that wait in the darkness along the way, Apostle does a fantastic job of keeping the wheels turning even at its slowest parts. On the other hand, however, it’s clear that Evans wasn’t able to flesh out all of his ideas in a more impactful manner because he simply ran out of time. There’s just so much fascinating (and freaky) lore buried underneath the story that it’s a shame that the film quickly rolls over it in the final act without giving the audience much of a chance to soak it all in.
There’s definitely a trade off, though, and it comes in the form of a man’s dark journey to rediscover his faith. This is a man that has been beaten and torn from his fealty to religion (and again, this is an element of the story that is barely touched on), but by the end we see his journey come full circle in ways that I think are really going to divide the audience—there’s so much to talk about on this front, but I won’t spoil any of it here. Besides, the less you know going into this one, the better. But I will say this: hats off to Evans for really going for it here and by taking a familiar concept and turning it into a singular vision that rips alongside some of the very best in the the cult-themed horror subgenre.
Evans has established himself as a filmmaker that knows his way around brutal violence—his Safe Haven short is one of the gnarliest things ever put on film—so of course he’s going to make you squirm every chance he gets, and Apostle is no exception. While the film is very much rooted in horror, there are some vicious fight scenes scattered throughout that are absolutely agonizing (in the best way possible) to watch. And I love that about Evans as a filmmaker because he can take a simple scene and elevate it into a brilliantly bloody showpiece. The violence isn’t the only thing in the film’s arsenal, either, as Evans balances it with a tense and writhing atmosphere that’s just as unsettling as it is fierce.
There are so many layers begging to be explored that Apostle never really settles in on one identity—it’s ripe with themes of religion, politics, and corruption, but because the well goes much deeper than even these elements, the film struggles to balance its tornado of ideas. And perhaps the most frustrating consequence of this is that it leaves no room for the most interesting thematic aspect of the entire film—the power of mother nature and her ability to give and take from the land. I would have loved to have seen Evans turn this part of the story inside out because it’s an absolutely fascinating take on the genre. But regardless, what we have here is an absolute banger of a horror film from one of the most exciting directors working today. It comes alive through a twisted tale full of magnetic violence and monsters, and it’s easily one of the year’s very best.