Apostle. 2018. Directed & Written by Gareth Evans.
Starring Dan Stevens, Michael Sheen, Bill Milner, Paul Higgins, Richard Elfyn, Kristine Froseth, Mark Lewis Jones, Lucy Boynton, Sharon Morgan, & Elen Rhys.
One More One Productions/Severn Screen/XYZ Films
Not Rated. 130 minutes.
Disclaimer: The following article contains heavy spoilers.
TURN BACK, LEST YE BE SPOILED!
This is the first English-language feature from Gareth Evans since his debut, Footsteps, and how far he’s come! Merantau, the two Raid movies, and his “Safe Haven” segment from V/H/S/2 were all excellent. Nice to see Evans return to a full-on horror story after “Safe Haven” showed off his affinity for cult terror and depraved, surreal magic.
Apostle jumps back to 1905 and tells the tale of Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) travelling to a mysterious island in Wales in search of his sister Jennifer (Elen Rhys), who’s being held for ransom by a cult leader, Malcolm Howe (Michael Sheen). Malcolm presents himself as a socialist-style leader of a community trying to break away from the control of English society. Thomas discovers the reality’s far more dangerous.
Amongst the dark fantasy and horror Evans inserts pieces of history, digging into things like the Welsh revival, a further emergence of the labour movement, and the many social changes as England moved from the Victorian to the Edwardian era. The terror’s enough to sell everything. Underneath is a compelling story that, at its core, eviscerates organised religion in all its forms as a destructive, malicious, and repressive force.
“It’s our paradise”
“No, it’s our hell.”
As the plot(s) unfolds, the backstory of Thomas becomes clearer through his brief memories of a life in servitude to God— a life that ended, and brutally, yet he continued on existing. Thomas is paralleled with Malcolm in many ways. They’re fed up with the dominant religion in English society, each having experienced their own process of disillusionment. On its face, the island’s version of religion and society should appeal to somebody like Thomas, feeling cast out by Christianity and the society which bends a knee to Jesus. Like Christianity, the island cult has darker implications beneath the exterior. Thomas’s relationship to God, his loss of faith in “divine intervention” and a “promise of the divine” left him without faith in anything, allowing him to see similarities between cults and organised religions as two separate sides of the same coin. He’s a Friedrich Nietzsche figure, all but actually uttering “God is dead.”
The quote above about paradise v. hell is an excellent allusion to John Milton’s Paradise Lost. In the epic poem, Milton places hell and heaven in physical terms with many lines, including: “The mind is its own place, and in itself / Can make a Heav‘n of Hell, a Hell of Heav‘n.” We can further take this, using the movie’s version of the quote, as a statement about religion in human hands— it can either save you, or destroy you, it’s up to the individual to decide which end it achieves. This is exactly what Malcolm has done with the island and its unique qualities, squandering it for personal gain and power rather than using it to genuinely help anybody.
Malcolm’s entire intent was to create a free society. There remains worship to a goddess, rituals, and other aspects of spirituality. There’s also capital punishment, misogyny, and patriarchal rule. There’s an interesting parallel between the idea of “blasphemers” from the church to the cult. Christians see the cult’s religion as blasphemy, and the cult have their own blasphemers who go against their beliefs, too. What Malcolm and his faith show is a direct link between the control of ideology and theology— two different systems, but systems nonetheless, and ones designed to benefit those in power.
“… an agent of a dying god.”
Prophet Malcolm has his people recite stuff like: “For my life is not defined by consumption, wealth, and material goods, it is an echo of my neighbour, and of my neighbour‘s neighbour.” He presents himself as someone from the early incarnations of the Labour Party, using socialist ideology to guide his religious belief system. A real life connection to his ideology: 1905 was the year when the official Manifesto of the Socialist Party of Great Britain was adopted. Still he continues controlling people with spirituality. Worse, he’s got to kidnap a woman with a rich father to ask for ransom. His use of socialism, as it happens with other dictator personalities, is, again, another system designed only to benefit those at the top. Doesn’t stray far from the church, showing another parallel: the cult asks for ransom, the church guilts its congregation via collection plate.
Worthy of note how the cult worship a pagan-ish goddess and continue observing Christian ritual. Such as the hymn sang early on, with lyrics that include: “Broad is the road that leads to death and thousands walk together there.” This is from a hymnal titled “The Almost Christian” by Isaac Watts. To see these people rejecting an English Christian society while continuing to embrace its practises is hypocrisy at its finest. They don’t sing new hymns dedicated to their goddess, they merely recycle songs about God.
Striking images used to show Malcolm as no different from the bourgeois class he despises are the receptacles. When people come to the island they’re given glass bottles. Thomas sees these are used to collect blood, which gets fed to the goddess. Malcolm preaches “no tax gatherers” will encroach on their freedom, however the required donations of blood are a corporeal tax each citizen of the cult must pay in order to remain a citizen of the island. Just as alcoholics who find God at AA only to replace their alcoholism, so do people looking for a better system of belief than patriarchal Christian society end up with the same abuses in a cult.
Finally, Malcolm’s treatment of women exposes him and his followers as just as wretched as the Christians. The cult worships a goddess— one Malcolm keeps chained in servitude, whom he humiliates and threatens with painful death. While the rest of Britain was seeing women standing up for their rights as the Victorian era ended, (slowly) getting respect throughout society, the women of the cult were living under worse patriarchy. Near the finale, Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones) – the worst cultist hypocrite – exclaims [re: the goddess]: “She‘s no god, she‘s just a machine.” He further traps two of the women, intending on using them to procreate and feed the goddess. He tells them “You will obey your bodies to me.” Quinn’s statements show the misogynistic truth of all religions in the end. Cults (think: Jim Jones and David Koresh specifically), and Christianity, each see women as vessels for procreation. No more freedom for women on that island than there is in Britain. Not even a goddess is treated with respect and reverence.
“Mother of mine
You gave to me
All of my life
To do as I please
I owe everything
I have to you
Mother, sweet mother of mine.”
— “Mother of Mine”
(performed by Neil Reid & written by Bill Parkinson)
Organised religion is the same, no matter what face it wears. Malcolm’s religion offers nothing different than the English society he rejects. There are taxes, in the form of blood, there are curfews and overbearing rules for the young, there’s even capital punishment! There exists servitude, misogyny, and class distinction amongst this supposedly egalitarian society. Just like Jim Jones, Malcolm acts as if he’s creating a socialist paradise where everybody’s equal only to become an authoritarian dictator once he gets a full taste of the power he was denied by the British bourgeois.
Apostle comes at the viewer with a full dose of dark fantasy and horror. A few scenes are diarrhoea-worthy in their effectiveness. Stevens does well as the protagonist, playing a wounded, disillusioned man who may or may not find redemption, and proving he has talent for miles. Sheen, as always, gives a great performance, allowing for a subtler cult leader than we often see on film.
The other real star of the movie, apart from Evans himself, is the comparison between Christianity and cults as one and the same. Many movies tackle this theme, not many do so with this much guts and craft. The terror of Apostle rarely lets up, spinning an inescapable web of frighteningly violent organised religion. Those last shots are gorgeous and horrific, capturing a bittersweet beauty and horror at once.