The Wicker Man is the name of a 1973 film directed by Robin Hardy, about an uptight Christian policeman (Edward Woodward) whose search for a missing girl takes him to an island where citizens practice Celtic paganism under the direction of a charismatic leader (Christopher Lee). Tension builds slowly as the self-righteous officer discovers too late his part in the island’s fertility ritual.
The Wicker Man is also the name of a 2006 film directed by American provocateur Neil LaBute, about a traumatized policeman (Nicolas Cage) whose search for a missing girl takes him to an island where its all-female citizens practice bee-worship under the direction of a charismatic leader (Ellen Burtyn). Cage dresses like a bear and punches girls in the face.
The Netflix original Apostle has garnered comparisons to The Wicker Man, which makes some sense. Directed by Gareth Evens, Apostle stars Dan Stevens (Downton Abbey, The Guest) as a troubled man in early 20th century America, recruited to rescue his sister from a the cult holding her on a private island owned by leader Prophet Malcolm (Michael Sheen). As he ingratiates himself into the cult and earns the affection of Malcolm’s daughter Andrea (Lucy Boynton, so wonderful in 2016’s Sing Street, but wasted here), Stevens’s Richardson discovers both the island’s dark secret and the rifts tearing apart Malcolm’s utopia.
But commenters describing Apostle in Wicker Man terms must be referring to the remake, not the original. Not only does Stevens’s wild-eyed, hammy performance as the traumatized and drug-addicted Richardson recalls Cage before the stiff-lipped Woodward, but Evans has no interest in a slowly ratcheting tension. From the moment that he discovers a red mark on the ticket granting him passage to the island, Richardson knows that the friendly islanders have more than evangelism on their minds. The village never feels idyllic, and no one is surprised when it erupts into surrealistic violence.
But oh, what glorious violence it is. As known to anyone who saw Evans’s breakout film The Raid: Redemption, the director is a master at staging visceral action sequences. When Stevens tackles an attacker or cult members strap a victim onto a medieval torture device, Evans shoves the mangled bodies into the viewers’ faces, forcing us to witness the carnage. Evans and cinematographer Matt Flannery keep the camera moving, letting it fall on its side as characters collapse on the ground and circling around the room, forever changing the environment.
Unfortunately, Evans applies this same approach to the narrative, to much lesser effect. The movie has many ideas that never get fully developed, and it’s not because it’s overstuffed. At 170 minutes, Apostle has plenty of time to explore its world, but it rarely does. Outside of Malcolm’s inner circle, particularly right-hand men Frank (Paul Higgins) and Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones) and their families, we never get to know any of the cult members. Nor do we really get a sense of the cult. Sheen is as charismatic as ever here, and his sometime-campy/sometimes-moving performance is the only one to fully nail the film’s tone, but why are people following him? What exactly is his message, outside of generalities about equality? When did they discover the island’s magical properties?
With these basic questions about the premise left unanswered, you can bet that the more metaphysical elements go unexplained. While a certain amount of mystery can heighten a surreal story and add to the dread, Apostle too often feels ramshackle instead of abstract. When a magical character suddenly develops heretofore unseen abilities, or when an exposition dump explains that problems with livestock extend to human babies, one gets the sense that Evans is making up the story as he goes along, cobbling together story elements as scaffolding for his violent set-pieces.
But, man… those set-pieces, thoroughly unnerving, often revolting. They foster a terror altogether unlike the creeping dread of The Wicker Man, but satisfyingly scary all the same.