Apocalypto is an action movie set 500 years in the past with a cast of entirely unknown actors, some of who have never acted before. But what does everyone want to talk about? Mel Gibson hates Jews. He’s been in a heap of trouble ever since a DUI where he said some very unkind things about God’s chosen people. He’s made the apology tour and checked into alcohol rehab, the new go-to defense whenever a celebrity screws up. The public finds it hard to separate art from the artist; Frank “It’s a Wonderful Life” Capra was anti-Semitic but few seem to bring that up. Some people have sworn off Gibson thanks to this disgraceful incident. That’s a shame because Apocalypto is brilliantly filmed and Gibson’s finest directing effort yet.
The Mayans seem pretty at ease 500 years ago. We open on a hunting party dividing up a recent kill and playing a prank on one of their members that is having trouble making little Mayans with the wife. Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) is the son of the tribe?s leader. In the forest they encounter a group of survivors from a different village. They warn of a group of mercenaries that razed their town, killed their people, and took the rest. Jaguar Paw?s father warns not to speak of what they have seen to their people. Fear is contagious, we?re told. That night the same mercenaries attack Jaguar Paw?s village. He scrambles to lower his pregnant wife and young son into a cavern for safety. The surviving men and women are tied up and sent marching. The village?s children are left to fend for themselves and most likely perish without any adults.
Jaguar Paw and his fellow captives are headed for a Mayan temple. The women are sold into slavery. The men are painted blue and guided to the top of the temple to become sacrifices to an unhappy god. The men are held on a slab, have their hearts cut out, finally then have their heads sliced off and kicked down the stairs. Through a fortunate set of circumstances Jaguar Paw breaks free and races into the forest to return to his family, who is in danger of drowning if the cavern fills with rain water. The mercenaries are not far behind and willing to go to any length to kill Jaguar Paw.
From an anthropological standpoint, Apocalypto is fascinating. Gibson has turned back time and immerses the viewer in a world unseen for 500 years. The details are astounding, and whether they are note-for-note historically accurate or not is inconsequential. You are seeing a living, breathing world right before your eyes. I loved soaking in the new-ness of the experience, seeing how this forgotten world operates, and the power struggles within. These people have great faces, great hulking muscular frames, and great expressions needing to be seen. Gibson has crafted a film that you’ve never seen before, at least with this kind of budget and filmmaking prowess. Apocalypto can quite often be breathtaking to behold. The production design and costumes (yes, there are more than just loin cloths) are incredibly rendered and add greatly to the authenticity and mood. I loved visiting the Mayan temple city (“down town” I guess you could call it) and seeing the different factions intersect, like green painted upper-class harpies being carried around the crowd.
The parallels Gibson puts out there seem tenuous at best. The Mayans have lived beyond their resources, experiencing plague, and feel that the need to pacify the masses, and turnaround their bad luck, is a whole slew of human sacrifices. There’s an Iraq War reference in there if you want to go looking for it and perhaps an ecological one as well. I don’t know if Gibson is using the Mayans as a cautionary example of a society that crumbled. We are treated to an opening quote detailing that no great society can be conquered from outside until it has become corrupt from within. Maybe this is Gibson’s way of telling America to sit up and fly right. Or maybe it’s just an intellectual glob toweled over the blood and guts to make everything seem more meaningful.
The acting is a surprise. Many of these people are really good, especially Youngblood who has a soulful face and a terrific presence onscreen. Gibson creates a great sense of community in the early moments. People feel natural and in touch with their surroundings. Their interaction and the visual shorthand feel like storytelling tricks from classic silent movies. Gibson manages to tell us a lot with little. There are some gut-churning moments, and some of them are because of character. A man from Jaguar Paw’s village hopes his wife did not give up fighting before she perished, because if she did then she will be sent to hell. He pleads that when he dies he might endure the tortures of hell, just so he can be with her again. That hits hard. A cranky mother-in-law also provides a shining emotional moment completely played in solemn silence. A little girl surrounded by crying children tries to assure the adult captives, “They are mine now. I will take care of them.”
The last hour of the movie is a non-stop foot race as Jaguar Paw valiantly attempts to escape his enemies and return to his swatch of the jungle. There are some fantastic escapes and imagery, like Jaguar Paw outrunning an actual jaguar. The ending is fantastic and a fitting climax for the title. I would have enjoyed just a little shove further, like a new character marveling at some gold trinket Jaguar Paw had gotten from the Mayan temple. “This is gold. Can you tell me where there is more?” he would say. “Tell you?” Jaguar Paw would say in a hearty laugh. “I’ll SHOW you where to get more. Follow me.” The resolution is pretty obvious but left to the imagination. I guess after much derring-do I just prefer more finality with my comeuppance.
This may be about a dead culture and spoken entirely in a dead language, but Gibson’s bloody art house flick is a lively macho action movie at its core. It’s structured exactly like a typical Hollywood action movie, and I don’t know if this adds another level of brilliance to the final product or makes it seem more ordinary taken apart from its historical context. Gibson’s trade is misery. He’s been a martyr onscreen and he prefers to tell stories about the anguished and tortured. Jaguar Paw is beaten, wronged, and has to race against time to save his family. When Jaguar Paw moves onto his own turf he turns his knowledge of the land to turn the tables on his enemies. The movie presents familiar archetypes like the wise father, well-meaning oaf, and impetuous hothead villain, Super Biggest Bad Guy (he does wear the most skull trophies, that has to count for something). The villains are larger than life and have great menace to them. Even better, they’re highly memorable and despicable, and yet they seem to operate within a tribal code of their own honor. They scowl with the best of them.
This familiarity makes viewing Apocalypto less jarring, This is an independent movie high school jocks could enjoy. That may sound dismissive but it’s a compliment. Gibson has great technical skill and after decades of shoot-em-up pictures, he definitely knows how to build and sustain exciting and rewarding action sequences. You know when the bad guys with personality are going to have big deaths, and you know when you see a hunting weapon in Act One that it is going to be put to awesome use in Act Three. The lines of action are well structured and smartly played. When you boil it down, it may just be an action movie, but because of Gibson it’s a good action movie.
With The Passion of the Christ, I was appalled by the violence, more so how Gibson fell in love with the blood and gore, turning it into pornography. That was the message of The Passion — Jesus sure knew how to take a lickin?. But with Apocalypto, the violence is savage but the appeal of this project is on recreating a world, not sadism. Apocalypto is more interested in opening eyes than shutting them because of nauseating and relentless gore. This isn’t exactly a movie fit for nuns and missionaries, though. Gibson embraces the cruelty of man and showcases some real horrors. The temple sacrifices are fitting and gruesome, but never seem exploitative. There are moments that I wish Gibson would have pulled back, like an extended scene of a jaguar chewing a man’s head or a gusher of blood spritzing out of a man’s temple like a broken sprinkler. I think Gibson loses control of his story and gives in to his own bloodlust in these moments, which serve to take you out of the movie and go, “Ick.”
The violence is also easier to stomach because the audience is more invested in story and character. Everyone that paid a ticket in 2004 knew Jesus was going to die in the end, at least, I really hope they did. That might have been a shocker to a remote few. It was all about witnessing suffering and testing how much you could watch. You felt the pain, all right. Apocalypto, in contrast, is tame and more focused on escape than futility.
After The Passion of the Christ made heaven and earth move at the box office, Gibson can afford to make any movie he wants. If he wants to make a movie about Mayans in Mayan, so be it. At least Gibson knows how to tell a good action story. Apocalypto is beguiling and often breathtaking to behold. The details create a rich environment that feels wholly alive. It’s a typical action movie plucked down in a different historical setting, creating the most unique movie experience of the year. It’s a man’s man independent movie but also manages to hit key emotional notes. I don’t care what he thinks of Jews or anyone else. His art speaks for itself, and Apocalypto is fascinating. It’s an art film for jocks, it’s an action movie for science geeks. Bless you Mel Gibson, you’ve brought us all together in the weirdest way possible.
Nate’s Grade: B+