Welsh director Gareth Evans made a name for himself with the bone-crunching Indonesian action movies The Raid and The Raid 2, introducing the world to the Silat martial arts style and reinvigorating the genre in the process. Not content to define himself as “the martial arts guy”, Evans has returned to Wales and teamed up with Netflix for a film that largely eschews the action he built his reputation on, swapping out frenetic choreography for the slow-boil of a cult horror film. Unfortunately, where Evans’ broad strokes and in-your-face gratuity works marvels for the The Raid films, as they color the fast-paced action in easily readable character types and memorable punctuation marks of bodily decimation, in Apostle they transform what should be subtle mystery and unease into a tired exhibition of well-worn tropes. And, sadly, this time the punctuation marks are few and far between
Much like the folk-horror classic The Wicker Man, which serves as the main point of inspiration here, the story of Apostle concerns a man scouring an island-based religious cult for a disappearance of a young woman. In this case, the man (Thomas Richardson, played with clench-jawed intensity by Dan Stevens) is searching for his kidnapped sister, who is being held for ransom by the cult. Where The Wicker Man succeeded in its trickle of pagan-inflected weirdness, and the idiosyncrasies of its musical digressions, Apostle gets right to throwing all the usual lexicon of cult horror behaviors at you from the jump: animal sacrifices, generic proselytizing, and scowling enforcers abound. As a result, the cult community never feels like a plausible setting, lacking the verisimilitude and grounding that its key cinematic influence has.
While Evans’s eye remains honed to deliver well-framed exploration of all this typical genre fare, it can’t overcome the triteness of the material. Clearly considered shots like a reveal that crosses on a hill are actually the masts of a ship, or a spiraling camera inverting a flaming crucifix, far exceed the consideration of the story they help tell. There is little subtlety at play here, and as the mysteries of the cult—such as they are—get revealed, any unsettling obfuscation the film had evaporates in favor of some silly effects-heavy reveals that do a remarkable job of dispersing much of the horror that some earlier moments built up.
The characters are, if anything, even more broadly painted than the genre tropes surrounding them. We have the usual assortment of spittle-spraying prophets, timid doubters, and naïve youths to contend with, and they’re about as interesting as you might expect. Their character arcs are prolonged well past their expiration dates before their unsurprising resolutions are sprung upon us in all their grim kineticism (the one aspect where Evans’s handling of the material actually feels fresh for the genre).
More disappointing are the roles for the women of the story. What begins as a damsel in distress story ends as one, only the number of damsels in distress seems to rapidly multiply the farther into the film you get. Every woman in the story (and I do mean every) is a helpless captive of abuse. It’s another disappointing example of Evans not only not subverting the usual genre building blocks but building the story with multiples of all the most frequently used. Only Stevens, as the drug addicted and perpetually furious lead player, offers a fresh and engaging performance to hold the pieces together. The most we get from the others is some scenery-chewing from the overtly villainous types.
What then is there to recommend in Apostle? Where it succeeds are the same moments that make The Raid films as good as they are: the punctuation marks of kinetic violence and the rapidly impending threat of it. It’s in the sequences where the film lets us forget about the mystery or lives of the characters and threatens mortal peril where it finally comes to grotesque life. There’s a memorably tense chase through underground tunnels that turns from thrilling to horrifying as the location becomes increasingly claustrophobic and the pursuers more nightmarish. Evans also indulges in some brief hand-to-hand combat, and though the actors are no martial artists, they acquit themselves well to the more clumsy brawling these intense scraps involve, and the camerawork is just as vivid and lively as the movement of the performers.
The twin elements of motion in the performers and the camera reinforce one-another to create the unique authorial touch that is distinctly Evans’s. Though there was some festival buzz generated about the extremity of the brutal torture devices heavily featured in the film’s marketing, they again serve more as brief sequences of successful tension and thrills rather than vectors for gratuitous gore and bodily punishment. These moments of memorable imagery and pulse-escalating action succeed because the broad genre points of the film are transformed from tired narrative devices, into the solid of clarity of touchstones for the viewer to grab hold of in a rapidly-moving rollercoaster of tension (they work for the same reason the comic-book stylings of James Cameron’s action-horror masterpiece Aliens do). It’s just a shame then that these successful moments are spread so thin and are over so quick.
Though it’s commendable that Evans decided to expand to new genre territory rather than rest on his laurels, the particular cadences of Apostle apparently do not play to the director’s strengths. It’s not as though a horror film about a cult is unsteady territory for the director—his short form “Safe Haven” is a superlative found footage horror story about a fictional Indonesian death cult and succeeds in almost every way that Apostle fails (although we can attribute at least half of that short’s success to co-director Timo Tjahjanto)—but the protracted rhythms here are unsteady in his directorial grasp. It’s as though Evans wanted to challenge the criticisms he received for The Raid 2’s sprawling narrative ambitions and see if he could make a film entirely around the story of a man behind enemy lines without resorting to the martial arts he knew he could pull off. Perhaps next time he’ll find a way to translate his discernible passion for combat to the stories of his characters, and I won’t begrudge him to try again, but sometimes artists just have a niche. Hitchcock made a career trading in suspense, so maybe Evans was meant to trade in broken bones?