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Prepare the Heathen’s Stand! By order of purification!

Movie

Apostle
(2018)

 

Another week, another undercooked Netflix flick from an undeniably talented director. What’s up with their quality control? Do they have any? Are they so set on attracting an embarrassment of creatives, they give them carte blanche, to hell with whether the results are any good or not? 

Apostle’s an ungainly folk-horror mashup of The Wicker Man (most obviously, but without the remotest trace of that screenplay’s finesse) and any cult-centric Brit horror movie you’d care to think of (including Ben Wheatley’s, himself an exponent of similar influences-on-sleeve filmmaking with Kill List). Gareth Evans is taking in tropes from Hammer, torture porn and pagan lore but revealing nothing much that’s different or original beyond them.

Set in 1905, Dan Stevens’ “Thomas Richardson”, all haunted and distracted, arrives on the island of Erisden, seeking to recover his sister, who is – apparently – being ransomed. Disappointingly, this is actually the case; it isn’t a lure à la The Wicker Man, probably because Evans forgets to give this cult a sense of unity that would account for their appeal. Indeed, the motivations of the island’s “elders” are entirely prosaic. Which makes the supernatural element much less interesting in turn; it’s laid bare for all to see, such that, as soon as it’s introduced as a bone fide uncanny element, it’s rendered borderline banal.

One might suggest the fantastical streak is a break with how these tales traditionally play out – that there’s a genuine supernatural source behind the antagonists’ eccentric and delusional beliefs borne of isolation from larger society – but I felt it actively reduced the effectiveness of the picture.

Indeed, this element is further weighed down by a clumsy character “arc”, whereby Stevens’ character was left wanting by his Christian God, but the pagan island deity actively embraces him in his hour of need, providing him with meaning and sustenance in the final frame; like much of the picture, it illustrates that, while we know Evans can direct the shit out of material, he can’t write for it. There are so many ways this movie might have gone that could have been rewarding, but instead, we’re left scrambling about in reductive genre entrails, ones suggesting Evans is more a Neil Marshall type than someone with a distinctive voice to support his distinctive visual sense.

What Apostle does have going for it – at least during the first hour of its vastly over-inflated running time – is a tug to discover what precisely is going on in this South Wales-filmed milieu. But alas, it’s inversely proportional to the dissatisfaction of the pay off. Evans never bothers to give us sufficient insight into the workings of the island community. Everyone has a Book According to the Prophet Malcolm in their rooms, and there’s a triumvirate of original arrivals (Michael Sheen’s Malcolm, Paul Higgins’ Frank and Mark Lewis Jones’ Quinn) who hold order and – revealed eventually in several over-expository and unnecessary flashbacks – enslaved the existing inhabitant to their will so as to – very The Wicker Man– guarantee good crops.

But there’s no sense of the organisation of Erisden or the beliefs of the population (Evans has mentioned proto-communism in interviews, but you wouldn’t know it from the movie). There’s an iron fist of guards in place of any devotion (which is where The Wicker Man got its chills). Likewise, Frank blanches at what’s going on, as if he weren’t aware of the full extent of the atrocities, and Malcolm expresses his wavering involvement – two of the three leaders – yet the trees are filled with corpses, and there’s a custom-designed gimp with his own fully operational torture chamber. Wouldn’t the declining island population have come to the attention of the residents at some point (and, if they’re on board with the general sacrificial aspect, what with their self-induced bloodletting, why aren’t they all desperately fearful about being next)?

Apostle lacks a trace of The Wicker Man‘s depth of approach to ritual and belief, or the elegance. Which is unfortunate, as it persistently and actively invites comparison with that classic. Here we have a distracted and incohesive cult, their leaders’ various motivations eventually laid out through lumpen dumps of explanatory dialogue that would have been far better left to the imagination, the same with the overt appeal to nature spirits (the blood-infused island acting through a human “Mother Nature” avatar).

Evans occasionally offers an interesting image – a cross on a hill revealed to be the mast of a stranded ship – but on this evidence, he isn’t really such an artful director when bereft of bone-crunching, limb- or artery-severing violence; he’s most galvanised when Stevens is spearing a couple of captors, and much more interested in goring his characters, be it fatal trepanning, or removal of digits – or if not dismembering then subjecting them to a stream of effluent – than he is in developing them.

The period dialogue has the occasional flourish, but the script issues are more fundamental; Evans is unable to imbue a sense of how this community has operated for what must be several decades and would rather distract us with obvious folk horror imagery (children in masks, ritual cave paintings).

Most problematic is his tendency to over-telegraph. “Your eyes, they’ve seen things” says Ffion (Kristine Froseth) of Thomas. “Who are you?” she asks, as if Batman has arrived on the island (his flashbacks would also have been much better left out; Evans feels the need to have him branded with a giant cross, for goodness sake). Stevens has found a niche playing against his looks of late, but this pales next to The Guest or Legion, and he frequently comes across as if he’s caricaturing previous, better roles.

Of the supporting cast, Lewis Jones creates a memorably loathsome antagonist as Quinn, unnaturally obsessed with daughter Ffion and jealous of Malcom’s reign. Unfortunately, these traits rather underline his B-movie baddie status, the kind who elicits a cathartic cheer as he’s bashed about the head while having his chest ripped open. Sheen is good ‘n’ all, with a big bushy beard, but both he and Higgins are required to breathe life into mostly empty vessels.

None of this is to deny Evans’ skills as a filmmaker. While indulgently overlong, Apostle is mostly quite watchable. It just isn’t very well written. There’s barely a scene that isn’t derivative of something else (the island “exploding” at the end even put me in mind of The Land That Time Forgot), which means it isn’t really doing its job of drawing you in.

There’s an argument that, like Marshall’s work, he’s making unashamedly cheesy exploitation cinema and so Apostle is doing exactly what it says on the tin. But at the same time, it seems to want to be something more than that, that Evans doesn’t just want to be regarded as an action maestro. Unfortunately, he only manages to make you think you’ve seen this all before, in a slightly different order or arrangement and done better.

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