(By Scott Starr) It’s always unfortunate when a talented director, solid cast, and intriguing premise fail to come together into a cohesive film. Such is the case with Netflix’s newest entry into the horror genre, Apostle…
…(SPOILERS AHEAD) Apostle is directed by Gareth Evans of The Raid and The Raid II fame. Both of those films carved new ground in the action genre and had me looking forward to more from this promising filmmaker. With Apostle, all the right ingredients are there. Dan Stevens from The Guest plays the lead, and the talented Michael Sheen plays his antagonist, the prophet Malcolm. The story centers around Stevens’ character, Thomas, whose sister Jennifer (Elen Ryhs) has been recently kidnapped. To get her back, Thomas must journey alone to an island and provide a means of purchasing her freedom. Little does Thomas know that the kidnappers are part of a cult that practices goddess worship and their goddess demands human sacrifice. Not only that, the film boasts a creepy soundtrack, excellent cinematography, and some genuinely disturbing moments. With all those elements in place, what could go wrong?
Well, pretty much everything else, beginning with weak characterization for all involved. Thomas dislikes his father, but we are never shown why. He loves his sister, but we only know this because he tells us so. Sure, he’s traveling to the island to get her back, but when he is presented with an opportunity to save her, he cowers in his room and leaves her to potentially die for fear he will reveal himself as the man who has come to pay her ransom. In fact, Thomas’ sister has maybe 10 minutes of screen time, making it difficult to empathize with her plight beyond the fact that she is there against her will. Why not cut to her every so often so we can see her distress? Why not build more of a relationship between her and Thomas so their ultimate escape will appeal to our emotions? We get a hint of some of these things. At one point, some of the children on the island poke Jennifer with sticks while she is chained up, and there is a moment of dialogue between siblings at the end of the film, but it simply isn’t enough to make us care.
Additionally, we are shown that Thomas underwent extreme religious persecution before travelling to the island. In a flashback that occurs three-quarters through the film, we discover that Thomas was once a devout Christian who served as a missionary in Peking. He was physically branded for his beliefs and left his religion because God did not come to his rescue. Now he believes that all religion is a sham and he holds a great deal of animosity towards it. This subplot would have worked better had we been aware of it throughout the film. As it is, it feels like an afterthought tacked on for the purpose of delivering an ending in which Thomas experiences some sort of supernatural epiphany by way of the island’s goddess. The revelation leaves the viewer scratching their head because up until the flashback, we had no idea that Thomas harbored any resentment towards religion, nor that he was secretly longing to be transformed by it.
The film’s antagonists don’t fair any better. When we are first introduced to the Prophet Malcolm it is through a sermon he is preaching on the morning of Thomas’ second day. Malcolm sings the praises of a socialistic society, proclaiming equality for all men and a life free of taxes on the island. The sales pitch sounds good, but moments later, Malcolm is interrogating a man suspected of being on the island to pay Jennifer’s ransom. The man is not Thomas though. He has no money to offer and is swiftly executed for it. From this incident it is clear that there is a much darker side to Malcolm. His rap sheet includes kidnapping, extortion, stealing, and now murder. All of this makes for an intriguing character, but midway through the movie, Malcolm suddenly shifts gears. The viewer learns that despite his list of sins, Malcolm never truly meant to hurt anyone. All of his actions were merely a means of keeping the island up and running. We are never witness to this inner conflict though. When Malcolm drags Jennifer out of captivity and into the streets, he does not at all appear at odds with himself. In fact, he seems to relish his crimes. It is only when changes are necessary to advance the script that we are apprised of Malcolm’s turmoil.
The island’s goddess is also a conundrum. When Malcolm’s community settles on the island, the goddess is treated to the blood of animals. However, as time progresses, her cravings grow stronger and only the blood of humans will suffice. The goddess lives in a cavern of tunnels beneath the community where she sits on a Game of Thrones style chair made of tree branches. She is old and ugly and only able to work her magic on the island when she is fed. In the early days of the community, the goddess provided the islanders with good crops and animals that bred. Now the island’s crops are toxic and the animals are dying. Without the blood she so desperately craves, her powers are rendered impotent. Why then, do the islander’s not provide her with what she needs? They seem to have no problem killing outsiders when the moment calls for it. There are other questions surrounding the goddess as well. Who or what is the caretaker charged with feeding her? Why does Thomas have an immediate connection with the goddess upon meeting her? Above all else, why does Thomas destroy her and seemingly take her place as the island’s guardian? By the end of the film, viewers will likely be at a loss to understand any of these occurrences.
For those wanting to see a new direction from Gareth Evans, the film is worth a look. Evan’s has strayed far from the films that made him and I applaud his courage to make such a cinematic leap. There is potential here for a good story, but the script sabotages itself one too many times. Perhaps if the story had been told from the beginning, allowing the viewer to witness the arrival of the islanders and their prosperity with the goddess, their eventual downfall would have been more moving. Unfortunately, without those scenes, the film is devoid of genuine feeling.
By Scott Starr