When his sister Jennifer (Elen Rhys) is abducted by a cult on a remote island, and with his father incapacitated by sorrow, it is left up to Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) to plot a rescue attempt. In true Gareth Evans style this would be an all out assault but this time our expectations are subverted and we see that it is necessary for Thomas to go in undercover to discover the ways and means of this cult before finding and bringing his sister home safely.
Inveigling his way onboard the transport ship to the remote island of Eridsen, Thomas and the others go ashore and meet Prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen) who, as one of the founding fathers of this camp and religion, has created a decent and well organised life here it seems. But it does not take long to reveal some undercurrents of issues on the horizon and growing distrust in the leadership to resolve this situation: crops are beginning to fail and animals bearing unviable offspring.
In what seems like a deliberately off-putting choice, the pace is extremely measured and the exposition is also kept to a minimum throughout, with the viewer left to learn at the same pace as Thomas as he investigates and uncovers the truth. Mixing the folk-like themes of The Wicker Man with the violence outbursts and small town feel of Deadwood gives Apostle at once a calming but unnerving tone, we know not all is well but we aren’t privy to what it is just yet. And continuing in this vein, when answers begin to be revealed they aren’t absolute, drawing out the anticipation that bit longer.
Evans’ directorial style works well here, so different from his previously vaunted work on The Raid and its sequel, with only one or two fleeting moments of his signature, explosive action. Matt Flannery and Evans have complemented each others’ work in the past and their collaboration continues here as glorious shot choices provide a fantastic window into this land and the lives therein. The world they create is paramount to the atmosphere of Apostle; and it works so very well.
Dan Stevens’ captivating performance as Thomas is exemplary, showing the mental anguish and physical pain at this situation and of his life that we eventually do find out about, but also the determination and honour that runs through Thomas’ veins. Michael Sheen, in full Welsh voice, is an inspiring leading presence as the island prophet but also perfectly portrays a man losing control, piece by piece. Alongside the leading light of Malcolm is the imposing physicality of Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones – The Lighthouse), a hard man and the enforcer of the ideology of the camp. Malcolm may be the one who is leading the way but Quinn is the backbone of this place, providing the hard words and actions when they are needed to uphold their very way of life. The third member of the three founding members is Frank (Paul Higgins) who has less to do than the other two but is shown as the voice of reason and the steady hand.
The slow descent into chaos soon breaks out into the open,. The brutality break free and the tempo increases at the same time as the disturbing imagery and violent acts. Every major player at this stage is acting under a perceived necessity but at odds with the others, but which of the many different futures is going to outlive the competition is unclear right up until the end. There are numerous other subplots that play out involving some of the other island inhabitants but are never fulfilled or allowed to reach their own conclusions, glossed over in favour of doubling down on the central premise. The religious imagery and tones are prevalent throughout Apostle but at the same time there are some parallels to witchcraft and witchcraft trials, complete with disturbing imagery and “purification,” as they call it.
The Netflix path has proved to be paved with the right stuff for Gareth Evans it would seem and he has been able to deliver a layered, controlled film that intrigues as well as horrifies and disturbs in equal measure.