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Non-Review Review: Apostle

The paraphrase Ernest Hemmingway, Apostle happens at first very slowly and then all at once.

Written, directed and editted by Gareth Evans, Apostle wears its influences on its sleeve. The premise of the film invites an easy observation along the lines of The Raid meets The Wicker Man.” This is massively reductive, of course. It also misunderstands the film. If anything, the more accurate (but equally reductive) description of Apostle might be “The Raid by way of The Wicker Man.” Evans period piece exploration of religion and devotion is very much a game of two halves. Perhaps even that might be more accurately formulated as two-thirds-to-one-third.

The only boy who could ever reach me…

Apostle suffers somewhat in its pacing. The first two acts of the film are given over to a sense of mounting dread and anxiety, to the slow and gradual reveal of what precise brand of horror is unfolding on this mysterious island maintained by this mysterious cult. Evans is a capable director who skillfully creates a sense of the uncomfortable and the uncanny, but the issue with Apostle is that any cinematically literate audience has a very good idea where these two acts of mounting dread are inevitably leading.

However, Apostle really comes into its own when it finally plays the hand that it has been carefully and slowly hinting towards in its first ninety minutes.

Burning inside.

Apostle feels very much like it wants to be two different movies, and so split the different between them. The basic premise of Apostle belongs to the rich vein of British pagan horror movies. The Wicker Man is the gold standard here, but the entire filmography of Ben Wheatley might count. At the dawn of the twentieth century, Thomas Richardson has discovered that a strange religious order has kidnapped his beloved sister. Thomas decides the investigate, infiltrating the group’s mysterious island home and discovering that things are not quite right.

The first ninety minutes of Apostle invite the audience to wonder what exactly is happening, and what has happened, on this strange island. The Prophet Malcom delivered impassioned and empowered sermons about his desire to build a paradise on this forgotten and unforgiving rock. He encourages his followers to shed allegiance to king and to country, to abandon ideas of crown or taxation, to forsake the class system and the idea of privilege or wealth. “We are free men,” Malcom tells his followers.

Cabin in the woods.

As befitting its early twentieth-century setting, there is a recurring suggestion of socialism to Malcom’s preaching. Malcom seems to believe in a world without kings and armies, a more radical notion at the time than it is now. After all, the events of the film would overlap with the first Russian Revolution of the twentieth century, that would pave the way for the toppling of the Tsar and the establishment of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Malcom does not speak of such things, but is positioned as a radical. It is made clear that the crown is worried about him.

Early in the film, Malcom tells the story of how he came to find the island, repeatedly referring to the land as “she.” The land should provide for its people, and Malcom sees an opportunity to build a new world. However, it is also suggested that the island has turned against its new inhabitants. “The crops were failing,” explains one follower. “The animals weren’t breeding.” Malcom assures one of his lieutenants, “This our island. We build it with our own hands. This is our paradise.” His old friend clarifies, “This is our hell.”

That familiar Sheen.

As with all pagan horrors, Apostle is tied into anxieties about land and about home. Indeed, it’s hard not to see some political commentary woven into the fabric of this tale of a bunch of zealots trapped on an island trying to assert their own self-sufficiency through nothing more than ambiguous promises and blind faith. There is a sense that these inhabitants have somehow tainted the land that once provided for them. “We have a god in chains, poisoning our land,” suggests one inhabitant. “This place, this community, is broken.”

Indeed, for all that Apostle might share with the rich vein of pagan horrors like The Wicker Man, it brings its own shading to the basic premise, its own insight into the strained relationship between these people and the unforgiving island which they call home. Reflecting its setting, Apostle plays with the idea of industrialisation and mechanisation as grotesque forces, particularly when applied to something as mystical as the land itself. Apostle presents the brutal exploitation of such land as a horrific and brutal assault upon nature.

A by-the-book pagan horror.

“She’s no God,” insist one religious leader of the island that sustains the cult. “She’s a machine. You feed her and she delivers.” In the world of Apostle, this is a monstrous thought, one that reduces any emotional or spiritual connection between the inhabitants and the island to a strictly commercial arrangement. Tom Pearce’s impressive production design underscores this. The material world in Apostle is never clean or sterile. It is often rotting and stained. The tools that sustain this industrialisation of the land are often blunted and marked by repeated use.

The first two acts of Apostle explore the dynamic that exists between the islanders and the environment around them. Evans works reasonably well in this context, creating a sense of mounting dread and anxiety as Thomas makes the necessary inquiries about the location and well-being of his lost sister. However, this all feels very familiar, and Evans never feels quite as comfortable cultivating slowly mounting dread as he does with more immediate and visceral set-ups.

No man is an island. But what about a woman?

Indeed, even during the early sequences of Apostle, the best moments are those which feels claustrophobic and panicked. There is an effective “not quite right” quality to Thomas’ initial inquiries about the inhabitants of this strange isolated land, but the beats that really land in the first two thirds of Apostle are more propulsive and more intense. Apostle comes alive in those sequences not when Thomas is wresting with some abstract fear, but when he is reacting to something coming up behind him or moving on top of him.

As such, Apostle only really comes alive in its third act, when all hell breaks loose. Having revealed the finer details of what is happening on the island, Evans finally has the freedom to go completely all-in on his premise. Indeed, the final third of Apostle seems specifically tailored to Evans’ strengths as a filmmaker. Were Apostle the work of a lesser director, that final third would seem crass or exploitative, an example of the worst impulses of twenty-first century horror cinema.

To be fair, this could just as easily be standard Morris Dancing attire.

In contrast, Evans turns the final third into a sustained and constantly escalating thrill ride, hitting on all the familiar rhythms of a horror movie third act with the precision of a first-rate action movie director. There are undoubtedly gratuitous and excessive elements of the final third, but Evans executes them with enough skill and dynamism to create a compelling push-and-pull with the audience. The audience is at once repulsed by the sheer brutality of it all, and impressed by the craft with which these elements of the film are executed.

Apostle suffers greatly from some fundamental pacing issues that over-extend an over-familiar first two acts. However, the final third is something to behold.

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