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On Netflix: APOSTLE (2018)

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APOSTLE
(US/UK - 2018)

Written and directed by Gareth Evans. Cast: Dan Stevens, Michael Sheen, Lucy Boynton, Mark Lewis Jones, Bill Milner, Kristine Froseth, Paul Higgins, Elen Rhys, Sharon Morgan, Sebastian McCheyne, John Weldon, Richard Elfyn, Ross O'Hennessy. (Unrated, 129 mins)

Welsh-born writer/director Gareth Evans is best known for his Indonesian action extravaganzas with Iko Uwais (MERENTAU and the two RAID films), but he's explored the horror genre as well with his little-seen 2006 debut FOOTSTEPS and the "Safe Haven" segment of 2013's V/H/S/2. "Safe Haven" was set in the present-day and centered on an Indonesia-based religious cult, a topic Evans explores in a different time and place with his latest film, the Netflix Original APOSTLE. In the early 1900s, Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens), the black sheep of a wealthy British family, is summoned home after years away by his near-catatonic father's attorney. Presumed dead for reasons the film specifies later and looking perilously close to feral amidst his upper-class surroundings, Thomas' return is an absolute last resort: his younger sister Jennifer (Elen Rhys) has been abducted and whisked away to a distant island, where a religious cult led by the Prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen) has fled England and established a community called Erisden. She didn't join the cult--she was taken for ransom and they want it delivered personally. Thomas must infiltrate Erisden, blend in, and bring Jennifer home. His doing so ends up costing an innocent man his life when Thomas switches out his marked invitation, indicating that Malcolm and his right-hand men Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones) and Frank (Paul Higgins) have no intention of letting Jennifer or her rescuer off the island alive.






The obvious point of comparison in the early going is the 1973 classic THE WICKER MAN, which was already ripped off by Ben Wheatley with 2011's wildly overpraised KILL LIST. But THE WICKER MAN is just a launch pad for APOSTLE, as Evans has more metaphorically loaded ideas in mind. He doles out just enough details--about Erisden, Malcolm, and especially Thomas--to methodically tighten the screws and drive up the tension (abetted significantly by a nerve-jangling soundtrack that vacillates between folkish instruments and screeching violins). As Malcolm's rebellious (conveyed in a rather facile fashion by her fiery red hair) daughter Andrea (Lucy Boynton) says to Thomas, "Your eyes...they've seen things." But she hasn't seen the scars and burns on his back, part of a backstory that will make things much clearer as the film goes on. Unlike most self-appointed prophets of this sort, Malcolm is initially practical, save for the requirement that the new arrivals on Erisden must leave a small jar of their blood outside their quarters every night. The crops have failed, but Jennifer hasn't been taken to Erisden as a sacrifice to their version of a wicker man, but rather, because they need money and goods brought from the mainland and kidnapping an heiress for a hefty ransom is a last-ditch act of desperation. Malcolm brought his flock to Erisden but reality seems to have given them a swift kick in the ass. This is also represented by the blossoming (and secret) relationship between Frank's son Jeremy (Bill Milner) and Quinn's daughter Ffion (Kristine Froseth), which sets off a chain reaction of tragedy and terror that takes APOSTLE into genuinely horrific, Stephen King-by-way-of-Neil Gaiman territory in the second hour.





To divulge more plot is difficult without going into spoilers, but while it only briefly detours into the bone-crushing action choreography that's synonymous with Evans, APOSTLE is his most conceptually ambitious work yet. That's not just in the unforeseen roads the story travels, but also in its multi-dimensional characters, even finding some sense of morality in the lunacy of Malcolm and his ideas. He's not even the most dangerous person--or thing--on Erisden, which becomes painfully clear to him when things spiral out of his control. There's also a harsh lesson to be learned for those on Erisden who commit heinous acts in the name of their god or their religion. When one character exacts his personal revenge on another, triumphantly declaring "I've wanted this," it's proof positive that Erisden has lost its way and its people are doing things not out of religious conviction but rather, control and power. There are those on Erisden who are complicit in the worst things happening and hide behind their religion, increasingly divorced from what they purport to stand for and believe, thereby offending a god who sees fit to poison the crops and make the land toxic. These notions make parts of APOSTLE a blistering indictment of rampant religious hypocrisy, but despite its grievances, the film is ultimately a spiritual one that falls on the side of faith. Evans also doesn't forget he's making a Gareth Evans joint, coming up with some innovative torture devices and increasingly painful ways for people to be killed, particularly one nightmarish mechanism that serves as a rustic tribute to the legendary drill scene in Lucio Fulci's CITY OF THE LIVING DEAD. And don't be surprised when cosplay versions of "Her" and "The Grinder" start appearing at fan conventions.

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