The unexpected success of Gareth Evans’ The Raid films seemed to confirm him as a director who would be heavily invested in the action genre for the foreseeable future (his first two films were also in martial arts/thriller territory). Four years have passed since his intense Indonesian actioners and Evans subverts expectations by venturing into folk horror with the release of his Netflix backed film, Apostle, which takes its cues from a handful of 60s and 70s British classics.
While the action was all good fun in Evans’ last two outings, the actual storytelling left a lot to be desired and that is the area where he continues to struggle. Clumsy contrivances and coincidences show their hand almost from the very start and things aren’t helped by a lead actor who seems ill at ease with his role. Dan Stevens serves as our eyes and ears for the entire duration of the film and if he isn’t able to convince us of his character, the genre heavy antics are always bound to be playing catch-up.
Set in the early 1900s, Stevens is introduced as Thomas Richardson, a war survivor who seems to have a permanent glower across his face from morning to night. His sister has been kidnapped and held hostage by a strange cult on the island of Erisden, and after the Richardson family receive a ransom note Thomas sets out to infiltrate the group in an effort to bring her back home. He arrives on the island amongst a group of fellow pilgrims who are warmly welcomed into the community by their new prophet leader Malcolm (Michael Sheen heard in his natural Welsh accent).
The secluded settlement is convincingly constructed and feels like a real place bustling with activity. Equally, there is good work from the wardrobe department to further complement the production design and it is not hard to imagine this muddy, rudimentary setting existing over 100 years ago. Thomas quickly ingratiates himself into the camp but is soon sneaking around at night picking up strange clues like the bottles of blood left outside of everyone's door. You can only imagine what the milkman will make of it all in the morning.
Running at an unwarranted 129 minutes, Apostle takes its time to get to the gruesome action that characterises the second half. Evans' slow burn approach attempts to build up the mystery and create an unsettling air around the secret goings on of Malcolm and his small group of henchmen. Elsewhere, relationships are developed between Thomas and Malcolm’s daughter, Andrea (Lucy Boynton), while two young lovers try to keep their trysts secret.
On top of trying to outwit Malcolm to rescue his sister, there are potentially two supernatural forces on the island Thomas will have to conquer. This starts to develop in the last hour of the film where the blood and gore levels quickly start to rise and the torture devices are wheeled out once Malcolm and co gleefully pick out their targets. It all feels rather silly and even a journey through a sewer filled with blood and an unexpected resident does little to raise hairs on the neck.
Amongst all the sub-plots and characters is Dan Stevens, an actor who never convinces he is anything but a bad fit for the part. His menacing look is permanently fixed in place which only works when he’s despatching people for fun once Apostle switches into exploitation mode. There is very little to Thomas in the first hour of the film and an underwritten script also does an actor of Michael Sheen's ability no favours. Aside from what we are shown of his current beliefs and actions, our knowledge of what has brought him to this point is pretty thin on the ground.
There’s a lot going on in Evans’ new film – way too much – large chunks of which are forgettable and lacking in tension and believability. Any comparisons there are to be made with classics of the genre it seeks inspiration from such as The Wicker Man, or even The Witchfinder General, are fleeting at best. Evans has yet to outsource writing duties on any of his five films to date and should he ever do so he might finally find a way to complement his considerable visual talent.
Apostle is available worldwide on Netflix from October 12th.