Every once in a while, a horror movie comes along that blows away audiences and critics alike. These films are nearly flawless, making perfect use of scares, genre conventions, plotting, character development, cinematography, and score to weave a bewitching triumph of filmmaking that both expands and transcends the genre.
Unfortunately, Netflixs’s Apostle is not one of these films. But damn, I had fun watching it!
Inspired by British religious horror classics The Wicker Man and The Devils, Apostle admirably bites off more than it can chew. Ambitious and thoughtful, it is a gory, thrilling film that needed more space to breathe to achieve horror greatness.
I get into a lot of spoilers here, so be warned. But that shouldn’t stop you from checking out Apostle.
After his sister is kidnapped and held for ransom by a religious cult, Thomas Richardson travels to the remote Welsh island the cult calls home to infiltrate their membership and rescue his sister. However, Thomas finds a much more tenuous situation than he expected. The cult struggles to feed itself from the island, the three leaders are engaged in a precarious power dynamic, and a dark and sinister presence lingers over it all. Thomas must navigate these challenges while battling his inner demons if he ever hopes to rescue his sister and escape the island.
Dan Stevens Shows Us He’s More Than His Downtown Abbey Role
Apostle is the Dan Stevens show, and thank God. With a gravelly voice and burning eyes set into his drawn and weathered face, Stevens’ turn as Thomas Richardson is full of seething emotions. He’s a tortured soul, full of pain and anger and sibling love, all of underpinned by his existential crisis. The fact that Stevens can switch between these different emotions at the drop of a hat is astounding (especially since the film blows through plot developments at breakneck speed). He’s a wonderful actor who uses his whole body to create a compelling character. I’m not sure Apostle would have been anywhere near as successful with a lesser actor, since so much of the character’s inner turmoil needed to be communicated non-verbally. That’s very hard to do.
The other acting isn’t bad. I think most of the actors did an outstanding job with what they were given, especially Michael Sheen. He reliably elevates any material he’s attached to. It was a pity that his character didn’t have the same depth and nuance that Stevens got to play with, but such are the limitations of a 2-hour movie.
The Story Is Completely Bonkers
This movie had it all—an opium-addicted former-priest-turned-atheist, a kidnapping rescue plot, a cult that worships a pagan goddess, Michael Sheen as the cult’s leader, an actual pagan goddess who may or may not be a siren who subsists off of blood, an assassination attempt, tons of gore, two budding romances, three strained parent-child relationships, teen sex, an unplanned pregnancy, a plan to elope, some brutal and well-choreographed fight scenes, a devastating and misogynistic act of filicide, a frightening form of cult justice, two gruesome torture scenes, and a fire that burns it all to the ground.
It’s a wild ride from start to finish. Instead of being a total mess, the plot handles these events relatively clearly and gracefully. I really enjoyed it. In fact, I found the story captivating and engrossing. I thought about it for days afterward.
Additionally, Apostle did an excellent job of incorporating genre conventions. The film had tons of tension and suspense without feeling cheesy, as well as lots of blood and gore without feeling cheap. There was also an EXCELLENT scary scene that had me literally yelping aloud. It is one of the more effective scares I’ve seen in a while, eschewing the jump scare for straight terror. The film also managed the unrelenting sense of dread very well.
Some moments were a little more heavy-handed than they needed to be, but I think this speaks to not having adequate time to explore things a more nuanced, organic way. I’ll get to that in a minute.
Apostle Has Gorgeous Cinematography
If you follow my blog, you probably know how much I love beautiful and striking horror films. Stunning shots filled Apostle. Under Matt Flannery’s keen eye, the film exhibits a knack for texture, composure, color, and light. There are scenes of tenebristic contrast between fire and darkness along with the ethereal glow of cloudy, bleak days.
Additionally, the film has amazing attention to detail in both loud and quiet moments, captures little details and clues that tease and intrigue. It renders the island’s setting as gorgeous but toxic, and thus communicates the hopelessness of the world the characters inhabit, in all its stark and treacherous beauty.
The Not-So-Good: The Writing Doesn’t Serve the Scope of the Story
I have only one criticism of Apostle, but it’s a big one. As much as I enjoyed the film, and as much as it left me stunned as the credits rolled, it was when I had a chance to ponder Apostle that I realized there were some fundamental flaws.
Did you notice how I liked the story but I didn’t say much about the writing? That’s because the story set up so many different threads, all with themes of potentially deep and resonate meanings, yet it didn’t develop them all enough to make the overall narrative arc satisfying. Between Thomas’s crisis of faith, the power struggles between the three “brothers” running the cult, abuses of power and privilege, the exploration of toxic masculinity, themes of man’s exploitation of nature, and the cycle of political and religious structures, only the crisis of faith received the treatment it deserved.
That’s because it’s next to impossible to develop all these elements in a 2-hour movie. It’s hella ambitious to try at all, and while this was a great premise in which to explore these themes, director/writer Gareth Evans didn’t have enough time to do it all. The film was already over 2 hours long and felt that way.
I felt that the relationship between the three cult leaders was most interesting and frustrating because it lacked important development. They were all fairly shallow characters that the film reduced to plot devices by the end. It’s a testament to Michael Sheen’s talent that he stood out from the other two. I also wanted more about the cult’s creepy doings, though not necessarily the reasoning behind them. The moments we got—scenes of bloodletting, the religious texts, other little rituals, were awesome. I wanted more!
But with that in mind, I didn’t mind Apostle’s overall ambiguity, especially when it came to the mythos of the goddess and her creepy little tree-gimp. I think a certain degree of unexplained detail can work in horror movies, especially when it’s not germane to the plot and instead creates a disorienting experience for the viewer. Obviously, a steady hand needs to manage that disorienting experience, but I thought it worked here. It helped me engage with the movie on a deeper level. Though, in all fairness, I can see how many people might have had the opposite reaction. There was just so much material that might have created too much disorientation for some viewers.
Essentially, Apostle should have been a miniseries. It simply had too much to address, and a 6-episode miniseries would have made a KILLER and insightful tv experience. It would have been a dynamite way to explore all those themes and narrative tangles in a very profound way.
At the end of the day, Gareth Evans has talent, that much is clear. He has some interesting things to say and enough innovation to explore those things creatively. But with so much to say, I wish he had found a way to tell this story in a longer format more conducive to the story.
Have you seen Apostle? Let me know what you thought in the comments!