So batshit it makes The Wicker Man look like Goosebumps 2, Gareth Evans’s Apostle is one of those films whose seeming missteps turn out to be cleverly placed artistic land mines. Its setting may be Edwardian, but its spirit is Medieval, rooted in redemptive bloodletting and creative, divinely ordained cruelty. It follows an extremely anguished Dan Stevens as a man who sets out to save his sister from a mysterious cult holding her for ransom. We know little about our hero — simply that he was once thought dead, and is therefore unknown to the kidnappers, who have warned his very rich and very distraught father not to get anyone else involved.
So, Thomas (Stevens), whose face is an unchanging grimace of constant agitation, signs on as a cult member and heads off to the remote island community of Erisden, where charismatic religious leader Father Malcolm (a righteous Michael Sheen) preaches peace, freedom, and equality while his black-clad shock troops mysteriously shuffle bodies around and keep a tight curfew. This land is more poisoned than promised: The soil is toxic, the livestock can’t seem to give birth, and a general air of suspicion and despair has settled on this community of believers. That’s why they had to resort to kidnapping, apparently. But there’s also more here than meets the eye: Who’s that figure snarling and screeching underground? And why do the supposedly dead plants sometimes suddenly start trembling and thriving?
Don’t expect Thomas to figure it all out anytime soon. Angry and addicted to opium, he does not seem to be particularly good at finding people, or solving mysteries. The film keeps setting up narrative pathways that it then refuses to follow. Early on, Thomas confides his mission in a young parishioner, Jeremy (Bill Milner), who is having an illicit romance with Ffion (Kristine Froseth), the daughter of one of the cult’s founders; you’d think they would now begin to conspire together, but you’d be wrong. At another point, Thomas saves Malcolm from being killed by a government spy; you’d think this would result in his being brought into Malcolm’s inner circle, or foster some sort of growing trust between them, but you’d be wrong there, too. Thomas’s investigation consists mainly of wandering around at night a couple of times. And his constant state of agitation — Stevens plays him like a human popped vein — feels at first like a problem, not allowing any variation or relief, or any inner life. A brief possible romantic dalliance with Jennifer (Elen Rhys), Malcolm’s daughter, also goes nowhere.
It is at this point perhaps worth noting that, based on his previous work, Gareth Evans does not exactly do romances, or conspiratorial slow-burn thrillers, or even moody mysteries. His best-known prior efforts, The Raid and The Raid 2, were balls-out action spectacles, in which character was defined less by emotion and more by the limits of savagery: The people you had to pay the most attention to were those who killed the best, and the most. Somehow, into that basic video-game rubric, Evans found ways to introduce personality, and grace — as if amid all that fighting, killing, and suffering, our humanity was only revealed the more animalistic we became.
He does something similar here, albeit with a more despairing bent. Apostle is filled with unspeakable acts of torture and violence — from snapped necks, to crushed limbs, to drilled heads — with none of the dance-like majesty or visceral excitement of the Raid movies. It’s all leading to something, but it’s neither cathartic nor climactic. Soon enough, we find ourselves at Thomas’s level; his state of constant agitation becomes our own. And belatedly, we learn more about his past, and the roots of his rage. Suddenly, his paralysis, his frustration, his sheer incompetence start to feel like the residues of a particular trauma that this place has unleashed in him.
After following Thomas for so long, Apostle eventually starts to show us the ways that the seams in Erisden are growing in the face of want, and fear. That’s an interesting idea that the film could have done more with. Evans seems interested in showing us how a society begins to plunge into chaos when its future becomes uncertain and its belief systems get upended, and there’s certainly some contemporary resonance there. But he doesn’t go far enough, perhaps because he’s also got a lot of genre thrills to orchestrate. Apostle is ultimately an absorbing, horrifying movie that’s maybe not as smart as it wants to be. But it is a lot stranger, and more disturbing, than you might expect.