Filmmakers usually get into filmmaking because they love movies and because those movies they loved had a huge impact on them. More often than not, you notice the influences in their work, with camerawork, editing, or direction clearly reminiscent of their idols. Some of them master their craft in their genre of choice and don’t move on from there. There’s nothing wrong with that, but one thing I love to see is a director break out of their comfort zone and do something a bit different.

Taking place in 1905, Apostle follows Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens), an unhinged, mentally unstable man travelling to a remote island. He’s there to secretly locate and retrieve his sister Jennifer (Elen Rhys), who was kidnapped by a cult who runs the island. As Thomas attempts to blend in with his newfound cult members, he desperately searches for his sister while discovering horrifying discoveries along the way.

Ever since the excellent Raid films, Gareth Evans easily earned a spot near the top of my “filmmakers to keep an eye out for” list. The man clearly has a love for genre fare like action and horror, while also displaying that he wants a strong story and solid character work behind it. Apostle has Evans stepping away from the action scene and fully embracing the horror genre. He excellently builds up tension with the help of the film’s mystery, where you feel just as confused and scared as Thomas. The camerawork is fantastic, gliding around the sets and characters, with great use of dutch angles and different perspective shots that really build up the anxiety. I don’t watch a lot of Netflix original films, so maybe this is a budgetary issue with them and they often look like this, but unfortunately the excellent camerawork felt hampered by how cheap everything looked. While Evans’ go-to cinematographer Matt Flannery has returned, this lacks the grit of their other films. It seemed too flatly lit, with really substandard early 20th century clothing and sets.

One of the things that surprised me about The Raid films were how character driven they were, with Evans taking time to develop every character, from major to minor. He does the same thing here, but he does it a bit too much where the narrative feels pretty unfocused. Thomas is the main character the film opens and ends with him, but there are long stretches where he’s absent and he doesn’t really have much of an effect on the plot at all. His character’s moral dilemma with his loss of faith and (literally) tortured past is interesting, but there’s not much done to develop him. As the story moves on and he finds out more and more creepy things, it doesn’t seem to have much of an effect on him. Dan Stevens, as always, was excellent, though. He spends a lot of time not speaking, but he communicates enough with his eyes that he’s truly a broken man at his wit’s end.

It was the cult members, especially the three elders, who really stood out to me in the character department. The three elders each have their own children, who have their own subplots which effect the overall story. As more information was revealed about these characters and their way of life, it’s horrifying to think about, but it makes sense when you consider these people in this situation. The performances are excellent all around, especially Michael Sheen, Mark Lewis Jones, and Lucy Boynton. You really believe the mass hysteria that’s taken over the island and how some inhabitants want to put an end to it, or take control for themselves. To be honest, there were times I was wondering why Thomas’ character was really necessary at all, as the story seemed to be more about these people than Thomas and his quest to save his sister. When we finally found out what the cult was all about, I found the explanation a silly and randomly cobbled together, but the more I thought about it, the more I liked it.

While it’s a horror film with only sparse bits of action, the action is still as hard hitting and visceral as The Raid films. When I watched The Raid 2: Berandal with his commentary, he stated that he always made sure there was never an action scene for the sake of action. It has to actually mean something and impact the story. Aside from one fight scene, which seemed to only exist for Thomas to fight a minor boss creature straight out of Silent Hill, all of the action scenes are important and impact the events in huge ways. The fights are brutal and bloody, the with the smooth camerawork and editing clearly showing us all the action. Evans clearly loves his ultraviolence and you’ll get plenty of that here, with spears going through cheeks and wince inducing medieval-esque torture devices.  Since the actors doing the fighting here aren’t trained martial arts masters like The Raid cast are, the choreography feels a bit sloppier and more realistic, just like two normal people in a messy scuffle. It really added to the intensity.

While it doesn’t quite match the intense heights of his previous efforts, Apostle is still is a solid horror film from a director that’s clearly trying to get out of his comfort zone. The plot and story feel somewhat uneven and unfocused, but you’ll get plenty of gory violence, suspense, creepy visuals, gripping performances, and excellent characters to keep you engaged. As much as I want Evans to give us more epic martial arts action, it’s nice to see a filmmaker try to expand his horizons and try something new, even if it doesn’t completely work out in the end.


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