Apostle first published by VODzilla.co
Welsh writer/director Gareth Evans found improbable success with his Indonesia-set film Merantau (2009), which drew international attention to local martial art pencak silat, and introduced the world to its extraordinary exponent Iko Uwais. Uwais would go on to star in Evans’ two best known titles, the intense Indonesian action thrillers The Raid (2011) and The Raid 2 (2014) – but between these Evans joined forces with Indonesian genre maximalist Timo Tjahjanto (Macabre, 2009; Killers, 2014) on the unforgettable ‘Safe Haven’ segment of found footage anthology V/H/S/2 (2013). With its cultic themes, Evans’ latest Apostle probably has most in common with the latter short film, although, while laced with moments of spookiness, violence and grotesquery, it is as much slow-burn drama as over-the-top fight- (or even fright-)fest. In many ways, it represents a return to roots. For it is Evans’ first English-language film – and also the first to be set in, or at least near, his motherland – since his feature debut Footsteps (2006).
The protagonist of Apostle, Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens), has himself returned home after a long sojourn in the East, summoned by a notary to his father’s house. Thomas’ sister Jennifer (Elen Rhys) has been abducted by a cult, and has requested, in a letter, that her father come alone bringing a ransom. Her father, however, is a ‘broken’ man, and incapable of carrying out the mission, so the notary suggests that Thomas secretly infiltrate the cult, establish that Jennifer is still alive, and then bring her home.
If this all sounds reminiscent of Ti West’s The Sacrament (2013), loosely based on the Jonestown massacre of 1978 (although updated to the present day) and similarly structured around an interloper’s search for his sister, Apostle is in fact a period film, set in 1905, and has more in common with Robin Hardy’s The Wicker Man (1973), as once more a Christian man comes to look for a missing girl (and for communion with the divine) on an island given over to ancient paganism, and ruled over by a charismatic but compromised charlatan (here Michael Sheen’s Prophet Malcolm). It is certainly, despite superficial thematic similarities, a long way from the baroque madness of Panos Cosmatos’ Mandy (2018).
“Whatever ill there is that stands,” the notary insists, “stands between you and him, not your sister. She needs you, Thomas.” The notary is right to discern in tormented, scarred, laudanum-addicted ex-priest Thomas a problematic relationship with his Father – not just with the estranged, helpless head of the Richardson household, but also with the invisible deity at the head of the Church. Accordingly Richardson has become an exile from both home and faith, and this internal drama is reflected externally on the remote island of Erisden where Malcolm – helped by his fellow shipwrecked souls the boatman Frank (Paul Higgins) and the vicious Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones) – preaches to a slowly starving agrarian community. For here, an ancient mother-based fertility cult has been corrupted into a new, dysfunctional triumvirate, and the result is widespread poisonous sterility and a fascist regime where women’s choices and freedoms are greatly constrained by fathers. These events may be unfolding more than a century in the past, but it is not difficult to detect in them a reflection of tensions and conflicts within our own present time, as Roe v. Wade risks being overturned, as every day brings new revelations of systemic abuse, and as patriarchy keeps reasserting its own destructive toxicity towards any kind of progressive enlightenment.
The ‘doubting’ Thomas’ efforts to rescue his sister – and, with her, the sisterhood – are also a quest for the hidden feminine, and a journey to find his own place within Mother Earth. On the way, he must face ordeals familiar from Christianity – mutilated hands, a pierced side – but Apostle is rewriting Biblical mythology in heathen language, and reinstating an environmental spirit whose natural realm we have all been exploiting and defiling to our own disadvantage. So Erisden is an insular microcosm and staging ground for the grandest of themes, as Evans continues to expand his craft and ideas under genre’s different masks. Aided by Matt Flannery’s reeling cinematography and excellent performances all round, Evans transforms this hermetic isle into a place of mystery, morbidity and miracle.
Summary: Gareth Evans’ literal cult movie Apostle is a 1905-set allegory of patriarchy’s toxicity today.
© Anton Bitel