Netflix's 'Apostle' Review: Generous Brutality Sunk by Too Much Plot

Robed men in black capirotes flank a wooden torture rack known as the Heathen's Stand. A pricked finger drips blood, a hungry mouth opens beneath the cracked floorboards. Masked villagers dance at a pagan harvest festival, under the gaze of a wooden idol of a hooded woman. Apostle has a gloomy splendor usually reserved for gothic horror like Crimson Peak, replacing decaying, cathedralic estates with ancient, tangled nature and the frontier structures we build to hide ourselves from it. Apostle follows from the folk horror of movies like The Wicker Man, where a people are overtaken by pagan instincts sprouted up from the land around them, becoming alien and dangerous.

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Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones), flanked by priests, prepares the Heathen’s Table in the Netflix movie “Apostle.” At more than two hours, “Apostle” is bountiful with foreboding imagery and lush violence. Netflix

Apostle weds its folk-horror sensibilities with an uncommon brutality. It's a movie so full of throat slitting that, by the end, viewers will have borne witness to multiple failed throat slittings. Gore is used with apparent dramatic seriousness, but Apostle just as often stomps around in guts for fun, as in a climactic fight atop a meat grinder that operates using flesh-piercing fish hooks. At more than two hours, Apostle is bountiful with foreboding imagery and lush violence. But when that generosity becomes indiscriminate, when the plot sprawls just as much as its eerie village set, Apostle begins to feel unfocused and indulgent, losing what works about the movie in a morass of world-building.

The plot seems simple: Thomas Richardson (Dan Evans), alienated son of a rich industrialist, joins an island cult incognito to search for his sister, who they've held for ransom. Apostle wastes no time getting to it, either. In just a few minutes, Richardson goes from a storm-tossed ferry into Prophet Malcolm's (Michael Sheen) settlement of Erisden.

But while Richardson is busy dodging Malcolm's black-clad enforcers, mapping the area, skulking, eavesdropping, casting about for his sister, Apostle's eye wanders to the other people in town: A young couple engaged in a forbidden love affair. The Prophet's daughter, whose forthrightness puts her at odds with the rest of the commune. Then there's Malcolm's fellow founders, including Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones), who rankles under the leader's failure to fix the crops, "riddled with impurities." What had started propulsive now meanders, taking every possible path to follow characters with less interesting stories.

Meanwhile, Richardson avoids a trap made of secret signals, tunnels under a house, infiltrates Prophet Malcolm's inner circle, steals blood, witnesses spectral visions of a mysterious woman and uncovers a dark, fairy tale conspiracy—all plot wrinkles unavailable to the other characters we keep returning to.

Many of them have internal conflicts instead of things to do. But the nuance often disserves them, as with Prophet Malcolm himself, who agonizes rhetorically over compromising his utopian values, even as his every action enforces a regime of blood and terror. Apostle expends too much effort exploring minor political differences between him and Quinn, or humanizing various characters whose plights never amount to much. Its complexities become more fussy than fun, as the men of Erisden each fight for control (and compete for the "act most like Oliver Reed in The Devils Award").

Apostle wants to flesh out the townsfolk and build a nuanced society, but director Gareth Evans's script is strongest when it's chasing a straightforward objective instead of piling on the details. This also holds true with Richardson, who's saddled with a vague, over-depicted laudanum addiction. Stevens' performance is otherwise a highlight. His Richardson is hunched and growly, like a crazed badger. He wades through blood with both a genuine horror and the resignation to horror of someone who has survived worse.

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Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) appears wild and haunted in “Apostle.” Netflix

Apostle is about how people reinscribe their evils on every new land, using spirituality as an inexhaustible excuse for the same barbarisms. In Erisden, they worship a new god, but bend it to the same ends as the industrializing society whose wickedness they fled in the first place. But in delivering this message, Apostle gets too bound up in the island cult it's meant to be escaping.