The prospect of The Raid writer-director Gareth Evans making a gory period cult horror is an undeniably enticing one, especially given how shocking and thrilling his V/H/S/2 segment ‘Safe Haven’ was. While the 1905-set Apostle sees the filmmaker on undeniably bold and ambitious form, the 129-minute result may be more of a slow-burn than fans of his work may expect. It’s certainly violent, brooding and filled with deliciously nasty ideas and nightmarish imagery, but it’s also a combination of inspirations and interests that don’t all mesh well.
Dan Stevens is on full intensity as Thomas Richardson, a psychologically and physically scarred former missionary who heads to a remote island to rescue his sister, kidnapped by cult leader Malcolm (Michael Sheen) for ransom. Once there, he quickly realises that there is more going on than a simple religious community living out of reach of the King. This man of God has harnessed some dark power that is beginning to turn against him.
The Wicker Man is a clear influence as Thomas skulks around on the hunt for clues while avoiding Malcolm and his cronies (Mark Lewis Jones is particularly horrid as the prophet’s opinionated muscle), but Evans spins at least one too many storylines during the film’s leisurely first half. With Thomas’ past, Malcolm’s moral compromises and an unnecessary subplot involving a star-crossed teenage couple (which mostly seems to be there for one of the film’s most gruesome set-piece), there’s a lack of focus and drive which pulls Apostle down and makes it feel both baggy and rushed. Stevens is fun, especially once Thomas cuts loose, but he never really gets more than “barely controlled fury” to play. On the other hand Sheen has far more character development and his character ends up being significantly more interesting.
Things do pick up in the last forty minutes once everyone’s shown their cards and the blood starts to flow (and there is a lot of it), but Evans’ determination to cram as much as possible into the movie deprives it of a crucial energy. There is a lot to admire here and some delightfully horrid moments (the force powering the island is a stand-out, and a gore tunnel sequence is a triumph) will undoubtedly make for some devoted fans, and it feels like it may improve on repeat viewings. Still, for everything that works, Apostle never quite delivers on its promise.