Review: APOSTLE plays on our fears of a tightly controlled society

Dan Stevens (Legion, Downton Abbey) plays Thomas Richardson, who, in 1905, travels to an island village inhabited by a religious cult to rescue his kidnapped sister from their clutches. As he explores the island and learns more about the cult, it becomes clear that rescuing his sister will be far more difficult than he imagined.

Apostle is effective in part because it features parallels to what many of us see happening in our society and the fears we have about what could soon be possible. For example, the cult controls information coming onto the island by burning books and outside materials brought in from the mainland. Free and available media and knowledge is not something the cult favors for its people. The cult has several ideals that play into modern fears of an uniformed, truth-averse, cruel and compassionless populace, such as, “we do not intervene,” first introduced when a lamb, hurt in a fall, is thrown into a pit rather than tended to. It’s a brief scene at the beginning but says much about the real empathy absent in the cult and its leaders, and how it might be lacking in traditional Christian beliefs. Still, when a woman entering the cult reveals her criminal history and is seemingly forgiven, it seems the cult might not be as sinister as Thomas imagined. When the leaders and the magnetic Prophet Malcom (Michael Sheen, in a terrific casting choice and a great performance), are introduced, their motives are again brought into question, as Malcom, who claims to speak for the goddess of the island, introduces the libertarian ideals of being free of taxation and government control. (There’s also a cool little subplot about the capitalist love of production on demand and environmental destruction).

It soon becomes clear that they won’t tolerate outsiders who don’t believe or threaten their power, and aren’t much like Christians or libertarians at all, but, in fact, leaders who desire complete control over their people. What the cult demands of its followers is questionable, to say the least, and there are strict constraints put on them, along with cruel punishments that are dealt when they fall short of the cult’s commands. The film becomes a powerful analogy for modern day leaders who preach Christian beliefs and freedom from government control, but in fact seem more aligned with fascist ideals. Though the slightest bit convoluted at times, Apostle does something I love in horror films quite effectively. For much of the movie the question of whether the horror of the film comes from the savagery and cruelty of the humans alone, or if it is something supernatural and more sinister, is explored slowly and dreadfully, building tension as it calls this exploration into question. Are the cult’s superstitions with good reason, or is it just another way to control the populace? The film tells much of its story in visual imagery, which is often bleak and brutal, but highly effective in its creepiness.

There are images in this movie that I won’t soon forget and in fact, might haunt my dreams for a good while, and that’s saying something, with all the horror movies I watch in October. When the question of whether or not a supernatural element exists within the story is finally answered, the visuals are stunning and scary. The cinematography and lighting are flat-out impressive and you can clearly see each frame and scene was carefully considered. If you are a person who likes dark and clever imagery, you will totally dig this movie. The violence is also sometimes seriously brutal, so if you’re squeamish, watch it with a very large and comforting blanket to pull over your eyes.

Like Brimstone and other films that look at the often vicious and demanding nature of religious fanaticism, Apostle is, at its core, about the mechanisms of control that often exist in society. It’s not for the faint of heart, but it’s a fantastic exploration of what happens when a group of people seeks to exert power and domination over another through increasingly deceptive and domineering means, and is absolutely relevant to our current state of world affairs, in which we frequently see extremist ideals and fascist practices coming to the forefront of our country and our world. Yet Apostle is also just creepy AF, and even without any social commentary brought into it, it’s a scary and seriously disturbing film.