Apostle (Netflix, 2018)

As steaming services play a bigger and bigger role in the film and television industry, a lot of attention is going to their original content–but mainly streaming television shows. What about streaming movies? What hidden gems or washed up flops are hiding under the “___ Original” tab? Lets see what is awash in the stream.

 

Apostle (2018)

 

Netflix

Director: Gareth Evans

Writer: Gareth Evans

Spooky Streaming month continues!

      Apostle starts off as a sort of Wicker Man  pastiche, a stranger in a strange town with bizarre customs and a dark secret, but a far bloodier, more action-oriented climax than other Town with a Secret films. It starts as a  tense, gothic cult thriller, and releases the tension in a sprawling and bloody third act that reorients the film into a messier narrative.

      Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) is a former missionary, haunted and literally scarred from a failed attempt to proselytize in Peking during the Boxer Rebellion, who spends most of his time in a laudanum haze. He is shaken out of his stupor when his father receives a ransom letter for Thomas sister, Jennifer (Elen Rhys) who has been kidnapped by a pagan cult that lives in seclusion on a Welsh island. Their father has mentally deteriorated, possibly Alzheimer’s, so it falls to Thomas to infiltrate the island to confirm that Jennifer is safe and unharmed before preparing to pay the ransom. Thomas takes the cult’s ferry to the island, managing to swap out the marked ticket that came with the ransom letter with one from a true believer. The cult captures the man with the marked ticket, and after some (offscreen) torture, realize that he’s the wrong man, setting off a cat and mouse dynamic as they try to flush out the intruder.

      The cult is led by Prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen) an escaped British convict. Malcolm washed up on the island with fellow prisoners Frank (Paul Higgins) and Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones) after escaping from a sea transport. Once ashore, they found an Island Goddess (Sharon Morgan) who promises them prosperity. Malcolm has written a holy book, and preaches a vision of community free from government intrusion, inequality, or capitalism–no tax collectors to darken their doors, neighbors relying on each other to contribute to the communal good. But after years of the promised prosperity, the crops have begun to fail, and all the animal births are stillborn. Hence, Malcolm’s plan to kidnap and hold a ransom, to raise enough money to keep the community afloat.

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      The supernatural is glimpsed early in the film, a mysterious woman with white hair that leaves quickly decayed flowers in her wake. However, it recedes into the background, as the plot mostly deals with the human elements of Thomas keeping his cover with the cult and trying to locate his sister. Here, the film resembles a cross between Wicker Man and an undercover cop movie, Richardson skulking around in the dark and gathering information about the cult’s inner-workings–the bloodletting, the secret door in Malcolm’s basement. There’s also a couple of subplots introduced. A young couple, Jeremy (Bill Miner) and Ffion (Kristine Froseth), Frank’s son and Quinn’s daughter, who carry on a secret affair at night.  Thomas begins to fall in love with Andrea (Lucy Boynton), Malcolm’s daughter who is loyal to her father, but not so much to the faith. Around the halfway point, the supernatural comes back in more a solid way, eventually building to a climatic faceoff with the angry Island Goddess herself.

      There are some attempts to add a sense of grandeur to the story–shots of a vast valley, or low-angle on a foreboding structure in the woods accompanied by a thundering score. However, grandeur doesn’t work all that well on a television or computer screen. It’s an element that would probably play a lot better if the film screened in theaters, and a more solid sense of scope might have increased the tension. Some of the climatic bloodshed might prove more cathartic with an audience to react along with–so if you want to invite some friends over for a movie night, this may be good pick for you.

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      The film struggles a bit when it comes to characterization, sometimes sacrificing consistency for plot points. Thomas catches Jeremy and Ffion sneaking around after dark, and enters into a sort of mutual blackmail situation that has Jeremy essentially become Thomas’s sidekick. While it makes sense for Thomas to try to pump every information source he can find, the angry, cynical ex-missionary is a bit too quick to trust Jeremy implicitly. The romantic plotline with Andrea is a bit old-fashioned, like there was a studio note to add in a romance plot to appeal to female viewers. Thomas forming a relationship with an islander is important, but the sexual tension aspect doesn’t entirely fit–again, Thomas is introduced as more of an anti-social loner, yet is quick to initiate emotional intimacy with Andrea. Andrea’s relationship to the cult and her father are vaguely defined–she is less of a true believer than the rest of the islanders, apparently drawn to the island out of familial loyalty. However, there are no scenes with her and Malcolm, which makes figuring out the nature of their relationship a non-starter. During a conversation with Thomas, she references some resentment towards Malcolm, but it never comes to anything.  

      Prophet Malcolm is established as a kidnapper, murderer, and torturer, commanding a fiercely loyal cult, yet when a schism emerges, Malcolm is slotted from a villain role to a more ambiguous role in the narrative, still hostile to Thomas, but more reasonable than the alternative–a murderous, lying unrepentant misogynist who conspires to institute a regime of rape and human sacrifice. The island goddess being a literal being, who Malcolm meets and interacts with on a regular basis, makes the cult a lot more sympathetic. Malcolm’s attempts to appease the island goddess being rooted in a good-faith effort to restore the crops adds a dimension to him, but he’s still selling himself as a “prophet” of a force he discovered by accident and does not understand.

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      Some have found it strange that director/writer Gareth Evans is doing a horror movie after the martial arts The Raid films, but it’s really only odd in that it’s usually the reverse–most genre directors start with a low-budget horror movie, then scale up to action movies. Evans started with a relatively cheap action movie, and is scaling up to more expensive horror movie. Evans background in action movies shows through at points. Nobody does any silat, but Thomas kicks more ass than a laudanum addict former missionary should. There are some knife fights that, while less kinetic than anything from The Raid, carry a similar sense of violent brutality.

      There is a theme of female anger and revolution. The island community is built on the powers of the goddess, sacrificing living mandrakes and feeding her blood to produce spurts of vegetation. But her anger at being imprisoned by the cult has caused the crops to fail, spelling doom for Malcolm’s followers. The conflict within the cult boils down to Quinn wanting to exert further control of the female populace, while the goddess wants to destroy the village to secure her freedom. This theme comes to a somewhat ambiguous conclusion, resting on Thomas’ actions as he fights his way off the island and rescues the women chained up by Quinn.

      Apostle has a mix of gothic turn of the century atmosphere, and brutal violence, two disparate threads of horror that mesh together. Despite some slight missteps in plot–which seem to be from sandpapering off the paranoia in the undercover cult plotline, in order to keep things simple when it’s time for Thomas to just fight his way off the island–it all holds together very well.

 

Hidden Gem or Washed Up Flop? Hidden Gem