Gareth Evans cut his teeth in the movie industry on the most over the top action movies you could imagine. The director of The Raid: Redemption and its sequel, The Raid 2, has been slowly widening the scope of his stories since he burst on the scene making a video game in movie form. The simple beauty of The Raid, where a SWAT team is trapped in a high rise tenement and forced to fight to the top and defeat the mobster ruling over it, spoke to what you can do when you’re hyper focused on one thing and one thing only. The Raid 2 widened that scope considerably, turning a taut one-setting actioner into a larger, longer beast.
His newest movie is a marked shift away from his other features. Made for Netflix, Apostle is a change-up, a period piece horror film about Thomas (Dan Stevens), a drifter attempting to infiltrate a dangerous and isolated cult to rescue his kidnapped sister. There is some aspects of The Raid there, what with an individual tossed into a lion’s den trying to fight his way out, but the approach is markedly different. The nonstop action of The Raid is replaced by mystery and intrigue, making Apostle far more akin to The Wicker Man than Rambo. There’s all sorts of standard issue cult warning signs wherever you look, from Malcolm (Michael Sheen), the charismatic prophet at its center, to Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones), a boorish escaped convict who boasts that uniquely dangerous combination of true belief and the muscle to back it up. Malcolm speaks of the goddess who blesses their land with harvest, and it’s easy to assume it’s all the standard issue cult hokum. But as Thomas further explores the compound, he discovers that there may be a far more horrifying truth behind Malcolm’s claims than anyone could imagine.
It’s rare that we see movies like this these days. One of the big surprises of last year, the little seen A Cure for Wellness, had a similar verve for mystery and obfuscation as well as a similar love for straying off the beaten path. A Cure for Wellness strove for a more Gothic feel, set in this huge, stately facility in Europe, where Apostle, both in its period setting and location, evokes something more simple and primal, a place that exists prior to technology and modern creature comforts. That works in the favor of Evans and his cinematographer, Matt Flannery, allowing them to rely on lanterns and torches and all sorts of other primitive light sources that work so well to play tricks on the eye and highlight the things that go bump in the night. And Evans (who also wrote) takes his time unspooling his vision, painstakingly measuring out the moments to build toward the big reveal.
Stevens is a classic leading man, but seems hell bent on dirtying himself up whenever the opportunity presents itself. Perhaps he has some desire to distance himself from Downton Abbey as intensely as possible. But his impossibly blue eyes shine through the muck and the mire, giving him an intensity well-suited to the tone Evans is aiming for. And Sheen, sporting a bushy beard and walking stick, makes for a delightfully shifty foil. It helps when you have the force of character to command a room if you're going to play a cult leader, and Sheen passes that test with flying colors. The men behind this commune are true believers, and it’s easy to understand why once you hit the third act and see what’s really going on.
Apostle doesn’t rely on classical scares to create its unease. It does get there eventually, but by the time Evans does give in to that impulse, he’s already got you under his thrall. This film weaves its tale with a wonderfully laconic and deliberate pace, creating a story well worth the investment of time, patience and effort. The involvement of Netflix in a project like this is a double-edged sword, as the Big N has the sort of budget and bandwidth to make a million Apostles, and it’s great that they have the faith in Gareth Evans to allow him to make a movie like this that’s so sure of itself and so unconcerned with pleasing focus groups and age demographics. But a movie like this also deserves to be seen on the big screen, so often framed to take advantage of the sort of true widescreen experience that can’t be replicated on a laptop, tablet or phone screen. So take heed. If you have access to a Netflix subscription (and I’m sure you do), put Apostle on the big screen. Biggest one you’ve got. Drink it in. You’ll be glad you did.