Horror, no doubt, is the most provocative genre in film. Sometimes that’s good: It can force us to take off the rose-tinted glasses, consider our demons and confront the things we’d rather keep hidden. But sometimes that provocation is aimless, exposing gore for gore’s sake and reveling in violence rather than recoiling from it.
It would be easy to put Gareth Evans’ Apostle in the latter camp: There’s violence aplenty, and the camera doesn’t shy away from the occasional grisly mangling. But this original Netflix period horror wades into deeper water, too. It’s the first mainstream movie since Silence to take an unflinching dive into Christian persecution, and it interrogates the intersection between faith and environmentalism better than any film this year.
Apostle is packed with blood, guts and head-splitting horror, but every genre element is balanced by genuine narrative and thematic meat. That doesn’t mean this is necessary a recommendation — particularly for those weak of stomach. But it is intriguing to see a movie of this genre so interested in a thoughtful, nuanced depiction of faith. There’s a bloodthirsty pagan goddess, sure, and someone’s listed in the credits as “The Grinder”—a faceless creep who churns fingers into sausage—but the main antagonist, a desperate and fearful cult leader played by Michael Sheen, actually becomes more relatable as his plan unfurls.
Sheen’s character comes off as remarkably human in a role that could have been caricature. Instead, he’s one of the film’s anchors for discussing doubt. Opposite Dan Steven’s ex-missionary protagonist, he could have been the charlatan at odds with the faithful crusader. But rather than fall into cliche and pit a radical villain against a rational believer, Apostle sees doubt permeate the faith of every major character. When Evans gives us a moment to breathe between the adrenaline rush, there’s compelling character drama to consider.
Stevens, for his part, plays Thomas Richardson, a former Christian searching the cult for his missing (and presumed abducted) sister. Richardson is de-converted. In a film marked with body horror, one of the most violent scenes has nothing to do with the supernatural or crazed cultists. Instead, it’s a true-to-life depiction of the persecution Richardson (and other Christians like him) endured doing mission work in nineteenth-century China. Stevens walks away from a God he’s never seen because of the evil he has seen.
On the other hand, Michael Sheen’s Howe and the cult’s primary enforcer Quinn have both stared the supernatural in the face and tried to bend it to their will. Howe treats the goddess with a desperate reverence, constructing an elaborate sacrificial system to appease her, even while the sacrifices run dry. Quinn, on the other hand, approaches the food shortage and the needs of the goddess with brutal abandon. His faith is ultimately in himself, and he treats the goddess like a machine, not an object of reverence: Blood goes in, crops come out.
It’s easy to watch Apostle as nothing more than a high-strung horror movie with the occasional jump scare and quality creature design. But the undercurrent of environmentalism is hard to ignore. The cult may have faith they’ll always be provided for, but their collective irresponsibility ruins almost every character we come across. They put their trust in something never meant to bear their weight, and as they try to correct the balance, the cost only increases. The cult purports to worship the island, but really, they’re killing it.
This faith/environmentalist intersection was explored tentatively in Darren Aronofsky’s mother! last year, but in that movie, the allegory was far less subtle. Aronofsky showed a God whose desire for mankind’s worship meant he neglected his more precious creation (the earth), and that neglect had disastrous results. The director took the core storyline of the Bible and twisted the characters to his own ends—God was shown to be a bumbling narcissist, mankind as a wholly destructive force—but in Apostle, Evans sidesteps these pitfalls and makes a more effective movie overall.
Christianity is invoked in Apostle, but not assaulted, and the characters are allowed a degree of nuance that lets the viewers actually sympathize with the choices they’ve made, even if the consequences are undeniably horrific.
Despite daring to incorporate environmentalism, Christian persecution and the interplay between doubt and resolve, Apostle is self-aware enough to not be anything more than exactly what it is. Evans doesn’t lose sight of the kind of movie he’s making. He’s a phenomenal action director, and even in the parameters of the horror genre, he brings enough visceral thrills to keep the pulse pounding straight until the end. Apostle isn’t a commentary about all people of faith or all Christians or even Christianity. It’s not a morality play, nor is it preachy. It’s just quality horror—the kind that lets us gaze into the abyss for a couple of hours, then think long and hard about what we see staring back.
Travis Roberts, a citizen of the Manitoba Métis Federation, is a writer and social worker living in Washington, DC. Follow him at his blog, or connect with him on twitter @TravisWMRoberts