Watching Gareth Evans’ Apostle, I stared into the bulging horrified eyes of Dan Steven’s blood-caked face and thought, “I forgive you.” I didn’t realize until that moment that I was still mad at Dan Stevens for abandoning Downton Abbey and shattering the hard-earned happiness that Lady Mary SO RIGHTLY DESERVED! And he did it on a Christmas episode! It was brutal. It was heartbreaking. And even as I watched his career bloom with a wide array of wild projects from the horror-chiller The Guest, the jaunty holiday romp The Man Who Invented Christmas, and the totally bonkers superhero sometimes musical series Legion, there was still a part of me spitefully hanging on to Matthew Crawley. But Fantastic Fest’s world premiere of Apostle, I was in so awe of Stevens’ commitment to portraying abject, soul-shattering fear, that I let go of a grudge I didn’t know still sat rock hard in my heart. In Downton Abbey, Stevens was a picture perfect English gentleman, down to the chipper smile and restrained emotions. But his true calling is clearly to be covered in viscera and forced to face off against a power-mad Michael Sheen in a grisly and gory horror-thriller.
Apostle is the latest from Gareth Evans, the writer/director behind the mind-blowing and spine-snapping The Raid. But fans anticipating jaw-dropping fight scenes in the Apostle will be disappointed. This Netflix release is less action and more horror, leaning towards Evan’s standout VHS 2 short, “Safe Haven,” in which an outsider is sent into a dangerous cult. In Apostle, Dan Stevens stars as Thomas Richardson, a drug-addled former-preacher whose tasked with rescuing his beloved sister from a mysterious cult. To access their private island, Thomas must go undercover as a believer. But ritual bleedings, a charismatic prophet (Michael Sheen), bizarre sermons about a crop-giving goddess, and a sketchy secret passage suggest he may be in over his head.
With a methodically paced first act, Evans brews dread as he keeps us close to Thomas, whose eyes coldly take in the scene of these believers who’ll blithely give their blood for the promise of paradise. It’s not long before the prophet Malcolm is on his scent. A game of cat and mouse plays through the humble cabins, across rotting fields, and through a river of blood. At every step, Stevens is riveting. His feckless rage burns so hot it scorches the screen. His steely calm in the face of Malcolm and his armed minions made me think briefly he’d make a keen James Bond. But such a role would be a waste of Steven’s truest talent: getting, down, dirty, and wildly theatrical.
Once Thomas tumbles into the dark secrets of this idyllic island, Steven’s restraint and steeliness melt away. He is a man on fire with terror and panic. His eyes grow so wide in the terror he perceives, that yours instinctively mirror them. His expression of revulsion flips our stomachs, though to be fair the sheer gruesomeness of Evans’ “purification” sequence could do that all on its own. Stevens is a vibrant neon sign of realizing true terror. And his switching it on signals the switch from the movie’s curious, brooding first half, and its bonkers, bloody, and deliciously nauseating second half. Apostle barrels into a climax that is an explosion of violence, drama, and blood blood blood. These are the grisly bits that genre fans will tune in for. But Evans cuts deep with the drama too.
There’s an unsettling empathy extended to every character from the naïve young lovers and the educated prophet’s daughter to even the most vicious of Malcolm’s inner circle. Ahead of a brutal murder, the killer plaintively explains to his will-be victim with a blend of rage and pain why this must be done. And even as I was repulsed by his actions, my heart stung for him, if only briefly. Similarly, Sheen’s prophet is a man of good and evil, explored through scenes of magnanimity and murder. Evans uses Malcolm and Thomas’s intertwining stories to explore how faith can save or twist a soul. And the result is haunting on many levels.
Following it’s World Premiere at Fantastic Fest, Apostle hits Netflix October 12.