Apostle (2018)

apostle2Welsh director Gareth Evans, famous for his action double-whammy The Raid and The Raid 2, returns with an absolutely batshit-crazy horror/torture-porn oddity that is likely destined for some kind of cult status someday. It is totally off the rails, nonsensical and baffling and frustrating and brilliant in perhaps equal measure. At over two hours its about thirty minutes too long and its script needs a few rewrites and perhaps a few sub-plots taking out, but its a fascinating film to watch simply because it just defies convention, as if Evans was trying to test how much free-reign and control Netflix was willing to give him. Turns out he was given pretty much complete freedom, which likely works against the film in the long run but does make it something of a curio and hypnotic experience. You just don’t know where its going next.

Disorientation is the heart of the film: Dan Stevens, having left Downton Abbey well behind him now, plays main protagonist Thomas Richardson, a twisted and troubled man who in some abrupt and deliberately (?) vague flashbacks is set on some vague mission to save his kidnapped sister from a vaguely-defined religious cult based on a vague remote island off the undefined mainland. Yes, it is all very vague: Thomas is the kind of unreliable fulcrum that H P Lovecraft sometimes used,  whose narrators were possibly as crazy and untrustworthy as the cultists they bumped into. Thomas is twitchy and haunted and reliant on drugs and stares balefully from under his tightly-knitted brow and grimaces bearing rotting uneven teeth. Something about Steven’s performance kept bugging me until I realised that he was channeling actor Sam Neil, as if deliberately mimicking Neil’s mannerisms in films like In the Mouth of Madness and Jurassic Park etc.  Its a role that perhaps might have actually suited Nic Cage although that might have proved to be unwatchable for me. Eventually we learn why Thomas seems so fucked-up but its perhaps one revelation too many at that point.

The island of Erisden holds a religious community run by cult-leader/prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen) and it all seems very Wicker Man with a medieval twist, but there are visual hints dropped in that suggest something genuinely supernatural is going on in the background, a deeper threat/horror than the cult itself. Again, perhaps in a further nod to Lovecraft fiction, layers and layers of mystery are revealed as the film progresses, so much so that it reminded me of the Call of Cthulhu RPG that I used to play many years ago. Ultimately there are perhaps just too many layers, too many revelations and twists and turns for the film to really manage successfully. I had the feeling that it could have been two completely seperate films but that Evans just threw it all into the crazy mix to see what came out.

apostle3I understand the film is set in 1905, but I don’t believe it states this implicitly onscreen (although I may have simply missed it) and while it is obviously a period film it does seem to have a dreamlike quality, particularly on the island which is genuinely like some medieval setting with torture devices straight out of some dungeon of horror/Roger Corman Poe flick starring Vincent Price. Strange camera angles occasionally add to the weirdness as do sudden outbreaks of violence- as might be suggested by the director’s previous films, Apostle is very graphic and violent in places and there is plenty of gore to satisfy horror-fans. Thomas has to swim in a subterranean river of blood at one point so that will give some indication of its crazy excesses.

The weird thing is, how I’m writing this possibly suggests its a much better film than it really is. This film is in no way wholly successful. As I’ve noted, its too long and really quite disjointed with perhaps too many characters and sub-plots. That being said, I do think it may be destined for cult status as such odd/flawed films often can be and it might actually reward with successive viewings.

So anyway, a very interesting experience and another indication that Netflix Originals can be very worthwhile. I’m not sure how this film might have fared as a cinema release, but dropping onto a streaming service to watch at home during a wet and windy Autumn night its pretty much perfect. I’m just a little frustrated that a disc release might have benefited from a commentary track which explained some of the film-making decisions. I don’t know if Netflix could manage seperate audio streams or provide seperate versions of content with audio-commentary tracks; likely there is insufficient demand for that kind of content but it something that I will certainly miss with the future veering away from physical releases.

2 thoughts on “Apostle (2018)

  1. Netflix keep releasing films at the minute that I want to see but look so dark/serious/weird that I can’t muster the energy to watch them — Hold the Dark, 22 July, now this… Doesn’t help that they’ve all been met with mixed reviews.

    re: special features, Netflix definitely could offer that kind of content — they already offer audio options for different territories, so I don’t see why commentary tracks couldn’t be done (House of Cards season one had some at one point, though I think I read they’ve been removed now); plus they always have trailers for their own stuff, and a couple of series have had connected documentary/chat-show-type things, so I don’t see why they couldn’t do more featurettes, etc. But I guess either Netflix don’t really care about that stuff or have data showing not enough viewers do, because they certainly don’t offer it regularly. It’s weird how much those things were a selling point in the DVD era, yet now many Blu-ray extras packages are pretty anaemic… at least for new studio titles, because there’s still clearly a market for boutique labels’ extras-packed special editions.

    Maybe all it actually needs is someone at Netflix who’s passionate enough to devote resources to it, or a director with enough negotiating power to strong-arm them into it (I know Duncan Jones wanted to do extras for Mute, but I guess they weren’t interested).

  2. You just reminded me of how special it was in the early days of DVD, having the opportunity to listen to those audio commentary tracks. I used to actually listen to them all the time, particularly any with John Carpenter or Ridley Scott. The early commentary tracks seemed to be more honest than later ones. Of course, as time as gone on, many of them have become historical documents in their own right as many on those tracks are lost to us now.

    I also recall rather liking the cast commentary on Alien. Always thought it was something tragic that the Blade Runner SE didn’t have a commentary from the cast. I’d love to have gotten that bunch in a room together talking about that shoot.

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