On powerless messiahs, dominion over the earth, and Apostle's misappropriation of its storytelling resources
Director: Gareth Evans
Screenplay: Gareth Evans
Starring: Dan Stevens, Michael Sheen, Lucy Boynton, Mark Lewis Jones, Paul Higgins, Kristine Froseth, Bill Milner and Sharon Morgan
TV-MA / 2 hours, 10 minutes / 2.35:1
Limited release / Netflix
(out of four)
Apostle spends an awful lot of time settling into a story that ultimately has only peripheral importance. I wouldn't go so far as to say it's hiding what it's really about - some measure of secrecy is par for the course in movies about mysterious cults living off the grid - but by the time we finally get around to it, the film is already running out of gas. It keeps its own premise at arm's length.
The extent to which this movie undersells its true intentions, and its actual ideas, is baffling. We really only ever get snippets of the real story - the buried secret of this remote island and the force that binds its religious denizens together. It's almost as if writer/director Gareth Evans was saving the good stuff for some hypothetical prequel. Which is a shame, because the story he's hiding is a fascinating one - not another rehash about a cult and the gregarious tyrant at the center of it, but a murkier mythology of entitlement and sacrifice and exploitation. The scary and tenuous power of dominion itself. Stewardship - over both people and resources - as a spiritual and ethical balancing act, one that can turn bountiful or poisonous with equal velocity.
But for most of its runtime, that's not the movie Apostle chooses to be. It largely plays as a starring vehicle for Dan Stevens, and as such it focuses most of its attention on his Thomas Richardson as he infiltrates the cult in order to rescue his sister, who's being held for ransom. While the character has some value, his presumptive importance is only occasionally justified; he could have been largely written out of his own movie. I don't mean to say he's useless, but that the purpose of his presence on the island - and the sister, and the ransom - is flimsy at best. He's a protagonist who has no business being a protagonist. Once again, it feels like Evans' screenwriting efforts were simply misguided - as if he came up with a full narrative for this character without ever realizing that said narrative wasn't even remotely important to the film as a whole.
Thomas is relevant as a witness, an outsider, even a possible savior. In a past life he was a man of God himself, a missionary whose attempts at conversion were met with violence and a brush with death. In a sense the Thomas we get is a resurrected version, one stripped of the righteous fire that once drove him; what remains is the unlikeliest of saviors. That function is an important one, but when all is said and done the character's symbolic value basically feels like a patch. Like something Evans dropped in at the last minute to serve as connective tissue where there otherwise wasn't any. The movie doesn't explore his past much at all, save for a flashback or two, and a couple lines of dialogue in which Thomas informs us that he's left the God stuff behind. This is just enough to fulfill the character's basic thematic function, but Evans never fleshes out the connection, or the essence of the character, enough to make his past - and/or his relationship with religion, with violence, with the supernatural - a substantive component of the film's DNA.
Considering the destruction - if not damnation - threatening this isolated place (unbeknownst to its loyal parishioners), it could certainly use an infiltrator who understands a thing or two about meddling with sources of religious influence. If only anyone had bothered to write such a character.
In other words, you can see the design here. I can imagine Apostle as a novel, but I'm not sure whether that's a compliment or not. The focus on Thomas obscures the film's true nature; instead of being used to illuminate this mysterious community's secrets, he gets in the way. Often he's not even involved in the film's revelations, so any role as audience surrogate is mitigated. Evans is committed to keeping Dan Stevens front and center, but only at the expense of his best material - and by extension, the best possible version of this movie.
The film can't afford that kind of distraction; after all, the cult itself is already something of a misdirect. There's a powerlessness to its leader, Prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen) - a very specific powerlessness - that intriguingly undercuts our expectations. He seems charismatic and performatively benevolent enough that, knowing what we know about movie cult-leader types, we immediately project a power-mad authoritarian. The truth is a lot more complicated. (Not that he's innocent, mind.) He is not a powerful man but a fearful and desperate one. Poor schmuck thought he finally had it made; turns out taking action without wondering about the consequences is the wrong gambit for a wanted criminal stuck on a dying island with nowhere else to go.
At its best - which is to say, in the version of Apostle we see peeking through the narrative clutter from time to time - this movie is an eco-spiritual fable that might make a nifty double-bill with Darren Aronofsky's Noah. But Evans keeps one too many layers between his audience and his big idea. Neither his main thread nor his key subplots lend much value to the bigger picture. They facilitate narrative events, sure. But they are not particularly valuable to what the film is really examining. The film is 130 minutes long, and yet in that time almost nothing pays off.
It's an interesting reverse-course for Evans, going from The Raid and The Raid 2 - with their very simple plots designed exclusively to support a series of action setpieces - to Apostle, which is a whole lot of plot that he ultimately doesn't know what to do with. There is a moment late in the game in which he randomly decides to make Apostle a kickass action movie, with the still-detoxing Thomas suddenly gaining the ability to kick ass and Evans becoming temporarily enamored with said ass-kicking. But this is not, by design, an action movie, and when the scene ends there is no more ass to kick, and Evans is still left with all of the other issues he's no longer able, or willing, to ass-kick his way out of.