Netflix's 'Apostle' Is Ambitious, Unsettling, and Overly Complex

Thanks to his work on The Raid films and contributions to V/H/S/2, genre fans have regularly praised the work of writer/director Gareth Evans for his uncompromising intensity and ambitious storytelling. Fans have waited four years for his latest feature film, Apostle, and the film delivers audiences the expected disturbing imagery and inventive cinematography, though the final product suffers from the numerous ideas making their way on screen with the narrative ultimately lacking cohesion.

When Thomas (Dan Stevens) learns that his sister has disappeared after being connected with a mysterious cult, he infiltrates the organization in hopes of determining the whereabouts of his sibling. Upon successfully arriving on the isolated island, Thomas witnesses the leader, Malcolm (Michael Sheen), delivering a compelling sermon that alerts him not only of his charismatic nature, but also the lengths he's willing to go to protect his religion. Thomas' investigation leads him to discover numerous horrifying secrets, reminding us that the evil that humans do in the name of higher powers is more terrifying than the powers that be.

Evans' accomplishments with The Raid films, which are easily two of the best martial arts movies of the decade, won't do him any favors with fans who are expecting Apostle to be a similar effort. Rather than a bone-shattering action film, Apostle is a moody and atmospheric folk-horror film that lets every scene linger longer than a viewer would want it to, heightening our discomfort. This pace mirrors a similar experience to attending an actual sermon, with worshippers looking to one another wondering when the speaker will finish talking, made all the more bizarre by the ideals the prophet is spewing.

Inspired by films like The Wicker Man and Witchfinder General, the first half of the film is a creepy thriller that delivers viewers a number of pieces to a puzzle that are intended to be put together along with Thomas. Whether it be the appearance of jars filled with blood or the disappearance of a man with a drop of blood on his invitation to the island, Evans effectively delivers us a complex narrative that chronicles a cult which feels familiar and entirely fresh. Even if we don't entirely connect with Thomas emotionally, we can't help but wonder what manner of insanity and brutality he will potentially be subjected to at the hands of this organization, or possibly the beings that this community worships.

The second half of the film, however, isn't nearly as effective as the first. In the wake of massive revelations, the tone becomes more of an intense drama than cult horror, which isn't entirely a bad thing. Unfortunately, the transition is quite drastic, making the viewer feel like they're watching a completely different movie. Additionally, the film's final sequences attempt to blend both tones together, while throwing together all-new elements, leading to a discombobulating cacophony of madness.

Despite the fact that the overall journey might not be entirely fulfilling to audiences, Apostle has many worthwhile elements. Sheen's work as the prophet is energetic and captivating, making it easy to see how someone would buy into any nonsense he's selling. It's a far cry from his more comedic work, with his performance of the prophet being incredibly subtle at times while always drawing you in. Compared to Stevens' Thomas and his drug-addled fish out of water character, we're left wanting to see as much Sheen as possible.

Apostle might be a massive departure from Evans' previous films, but his influence is still seen. Viewers are robbed of some of the film's most sadistic violence, yet his coverage of reactions to these horrific events make the sequences unsettling. Whether it be a character climbing a ladder or an otherworldly being crawling through a sewer, the filmmaker finds new and nontraditional ways of shooting these scenes in order to make you feel like you've never seen such a sequence before.

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Horror fans hoping to see a slow-burn film about cults will absolutely love the first half, yet might be frustrated at the rest of the film. Whether you only like some of the film's components or find the overall narrative fulfilling, Apostle continues Evans' trajectory as one of the most uncompromising contemporary genre directors, leaving us hoping we won't have to wait another four years for a new film.

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars