By JAMES TUCKER
Starring: Dan Stevens, Michael Sheen, Lucy Boynton
Written by Gareth Evans
Directed by Gareth Evans
APOSTLE is one of my favorite movies. It isn’t perfect by any means, but that isn’t really the point. Gareth Evans’ cult horror film about a man sneaking into the ranks of a forest-goddess worshipping cult to rescue his kidnapped sister has everything a disciple of cult horror could ask for, from radicalized cult members staging violent coups to mummified plant-men hauling prisoners into grinders. It’s a beautiful, violent, and (occasionally) emotionally devastating look at how fundamentalism is a cancerous, systemic outlook that corrupts even the most well-intentioned people, destined for disaster.
Even if you ignore all that, it’s still a pretty badass film. Midsommar, eat your heart out.
I mention Midsommar because there’s an argument to be made that both films are a touch over-long, but UNLIKE Aster’s sophomore film, APOSTLE manages to justify every moment of its mammoth runtime. APOSTLE’s first hour deals with Thomas (Dan Stevens, our main character) in hiding as he attempts to blend in with the members of the commune with the prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen) and his cronies trying (and failing) to track him down. This is where the film takes its time and sets the stage for what’s to come later, introducing us to many of the islanders’ strange customs (like leaving blood offerings in mason jars outside their doors before they go to sleep at night), the goddess the islanders worship, and side characters like forbidden lovers Jeremy (Bill Milner) and Ffion (Kristine Froseth). Their romance seems to have no point until it winds up being the climax for the third act, and the inspiration for one of the most brutal and heart-wrenching sequences I’ve seen in religious horror. The second act of the film is the Two Towers of APOSTLE; character dynamics begin to change as Thomas slowly discovers more about the island’s history and reveals his own backstory (shocker, it isn’t pretty), and Malcolm may be on the outs with his congregation. And the third act… well, you’ll just have to see. Think Ramsey Campbell meets Saw 8, and you’re in the ballpark.
“APOSTLE is the most original, batshit crazy cult horror film to come along in a long, long time, avoiding most of the tropes of its subgenre to tell a wholly original tale.”
It kinda sucks that I don’t want to spoil it, because so much of what makes APOSTLE worth the wait happens in the third act. Malcolm is a villain, but he isn’t the bad guy; in fact, the film makes it clear that the worst thing he did was construct an environment where the REAL bad guy could rise to power. The group’s dependence on a singular voice to give them instruction, their quick surrender to fear and the subsequent rise of a mob mentality, their distrust of outsiders and willingness to believe (without proof) that anyone their leader dislikes is there to destroy their very way of life… all of that and more paves the way for the atrocities of the third act, the group’s tolerance for and quickness to violence. To the villains of this story, gods are merely machines (and so are cults); you feed them, and they deliver. The only thing that can result from that philosophy is toxicity and malaise and death. The only way to restore equilibrium, to allow people to love and think for themselves and be connected with the spiritual again (if you believe in such things), is to burn all of that right the fuck down. The choice to make the protagonist an ex-missionary who was burned by faith (and yet, strangely, reclaims a part of his belief in the supernatural when he destroys Malcolm’s cult) makes the film’s anti-establishment, and not anti-faith, messaging all the more interesting.
Is it perfect? No. I wish we had gotten some idea of who Thomas’ sister was as a character, as well as the family dynamic that led to Thomas getting ostracized by his father. I also wish we had gotten some idea of who Malcolm was before he started the cult; I feel like APOSTLE wants him to be a touch more sympathetic than he is, and even though he doesn’t cross quite the same lines some do in the third act, he has PLENTY of blood on his hands before that point. The idea seems to be that he’s a generally good person led to do horrible things by his faith, his belief that just one more compromise might help his community recover, but at the point we meet him there’s very little evidence that he was ever a genuinely good person. I just wish there was more here to justify that characterization of his character. But these imperfections are largely offset by just how batshit, compelling, and thoroughly original this movie is. Unlike Midsommar (yes, I will die on this soapbox) which appropriated elements from its forebears and used them to tell a story about a really messy breakup, APOSTLE is it’s own thing entirely, and manages to tell a story about faith, fundamentalism and the consequences of both without relying too heavily on the tropes of its subgenre.
I’m giving APOSTLE a 9. If you’re looking for a cult horror fix, you absolutely cannot do better. (Especially not on Netflix.)