Anyone familiar with the brutal martial showdowns of Indonesian thriller “The Raid: Redemption” and its sequel will go into “Apostle” expecting the wrong movie. In this gnarly occult thriller set on an island full of devious people in 1902, writer-director Gareth Evans’ Netflix thriller trades the intensity of hand-to-hand combat for a ludicrous mishmash of gore, espionage, estranged family dynamics, and half-formed supernatural conceits. At over two hours, Evans demonstrates a formidable commitment to seeing this unseemly formula through, with the sort of mixed results of a visionary filmmaker launching into unwieldy terrain. The visceral intensity is there, delivered in shocking bursts of sudden twists not unlike the jarring fisticuffs that dominated “The Raid,” but it tends to dangle with a grotesque emptiness at odds with the material.
At first, “Apostle” sets the stage for a daring rescue mission. Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens, subdued throughout), the estranged son of a wealthy British family, gets recruited to recover his kidnapped sister Andrea (Lucy Boynton) from a remote island, where she’s being held by an enigmatic cult. Thomas, who appears in early scenes as a bleary-eyed junkie, quickly cleans up his image and embeds himself — perhaps a bit too easily — in an Edwardian era riff on “The Wicker Man.” Thomas finds himself enmeshed in a quasi-religious utopian community overseen by the raving Prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen, bearded and further disguised by an unusual bowl cut) who oversees the small encampment with a stern set of rules. As armed henchmen keep guard and the town quietly lives off the land, Thomas goes sneaking around for signs of his sister.
So far, so creepy. Evans spends the first hour carving out an eerie, slow-burn atmosphere, with the island’s dark green palette hinting at the fairy tale ingredients that abruptly enter the plot in the convoluted second half. Before it gets there, however, there’s much to appreciate about the way “Apostle” turns up the tension in unexpected places: an interrogation session that comes this close to outing Thomas’ real intentions makes it clear that he’s not the only one with ulterior motives; later, sneaking around the hidden tunnels of the village’s overseers, he stumbles into a claustrophobic tunnel filled with blood — and a terrifying inhabitant whose unexpected arrival strikes a more thorough note of dread than any jump scare could provide.
But as much as these unnerving moments position “Apostle” as a genre-based period piece on par with “The Witch,” Evans struggles to balance them with the other ingredients in play. A side plot involving a clandestine relationship between the cowardly young man (Bill Milner) recruited by Thomas for help, and a local girl (Kristine Froseth), does little aside from setting up an inane torture scene that wouldn’t look out of place in the days of “Hostel” and “Saw.” The girl’s father (Mark Lewis Jones), emerges as a raging lunatic villain barking his madness at brainwashed locals whose subservience never makes much sense in the first place. And the prophet himself lacks enough backstory for Sheen to give him the depth the narrative demands, especially once it asks us to sympathize for his cause with the suggestion that his crazed declarations about a godly provider contain some kernel of truth.
“Apostle” struggles to make sense from all of that — and also injects some kind of wizened forest sprite held captive by a gun-wielding gimp, whose entire existence seems predicated on the idea that he’ll provide a whole new threat for Thomas once he outsmarts the island’s humans. Evans’ script is dripping with fits and starts of oddball inspiration, but he keeps interrupting it with humorless showdowns and a mishmash of new developments that make the prospects of genuine payoff dim. Whereas “The Raid” movies were loaded with cartoonish villains thrown together with daring filmmaking trickery — the single apartment set of the first movie, the rapid highway battle of the second — “Apostle” offers elegant art direction and cinematography punctuated by abrupt bloodshed: People get stabbed, maimed, and crushed aplenty, but it’s all layered on top of a stylized, fable-like plot in a feeble bid to keep audiences from growing bored.
On some level, Evans’ dry run for “Apostle” stretches back to “Safe Haven,” his masterful snippet of disturbing storytelling in the anthology sequel “V/H/S/2.” That short entry also featured a deranged cult with a supernatural threat emerging from unexpected places, but the entire work was built around the gradual accumulation of dread and a single horrific payoff in the closing moments. By the time “Apostle” arrives at its big reveal, the movie has veered off on so many tangled pathways that the ending can’t resolve them all. Instead, it provides a single, ethereal image that hints at the more imaginative possibilities lurking somewhere inside this bloody mess.
“Apostle” premiered at the 2018 edition of Fantastic Fest. Netflix releases it globally on October 12, 2018.