Directed by: Mel Gibson
Written by: Mel Gibson & Farhad Safinia
Apocalypto's at its best when it shuts up and runs. Or fights. And, surprisingly for a mainstream American movie, its last hour or more is largely dialogue-free. That's a testament to Mel Gibson's formalistic fortitude, which is best on display during some truly impressive set-pieces; he only falters in some early scenes, which are guilty of an oversimplification of good and evil (see if you can figure out which ones are the bad guys), common to religious types like Gibson or Guillermo de Toro, and petty anachronism (Mayans had shrewy mother-in-laws, too? Some things never change, yuk yuk!). "A great civilization is not conquered from without," Gibson tells us in the film's first moments, flashing a quote from historian Will Durant, "until it has destroyed itself from within." That line was penned in reference to, what else, Ancient Rome, but Gibson has claimed Apocalypto is meant as an allegorical critique on contemporary America, though it feels like a more literal attack on post-classical Mayans, or at least on the generally uncivilized (of which I suppose then that America, to Gibson, is a part.)
The film's first moments feature a slow zoom into the depths of the jungle undergrowth; kept in suspense about what we hope to find at the "heart" of this forest, it is ultimately revealed to be a feral boar, less than a flattering comment—you're swine!—to whomever it may be aimed at. A hunt of said boar follows, drenched in foreshadowing, and concludes in a brutal slaying, an explicit organ harvest, and a graphic feasting on testicles. Apocalypto is only a hair away from torture porn; later, to pick just one small and noisome example of many, an arrow goes through the back of someone's head and comes out the mouth. That testicle bit, though, is a practical joke; the small tribe of Mayans who function as the main characters, as in the ones we are forced to sympathize with, are portrayed as a quasi-naked gang of pranksters and knee-slapping good old boys. Soon though, in a slyly implicit critique of the indefensible Iraq War, which Gibson is on the record as being against, a different tribe, this one far less good-natured, invades the home of our heroes; they're led by a warrior, a butcher by the name of Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo)—perhaps a loose and subtle, anti-semitic reference to Fiddler on the Roof—with a string of human jawbones where sleeves ought to be, and an intense scene of rapacious pillaging ensues, in which our protagonist, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood, an appropriate name for the novice actor) hides his enceinte wife and young child in a small cave that resembles a well. He, though, is captured and, with the other prisoners of war, forced to march, with the ultimate intention of being sold for sacrifice.
The battle scene is an accomplishment for Gibson; among the tacky violence and horseplay, rousing and tense as it is at times, he finds some silent moments of genuine pathos, as the villagers watch their neighbors and families slaughtered while they remain impotent, tied-up prisoners. However, he lays the manipulativeness on a bit thick, most of all with a long line of dew-eyed children following the slave procession crying out for their mommies. In its first hour Apocalypto can be a bit knuckleheaded, but visually it's astounding, most of all in the subsequent set-piece, a twenty minute spectacle in the form of a human sacrifice ceremony. The ritualized violence is for religious purposes, of course, an offering to their Sun-God in imploration for an end to the epidemics of famine and disease, and it involves the captives' hearts being cut out, their heads cut off and thrown down the temple stairs, followed by their necktop corpses. (Hey, remember that pig hunting scene?) The sequence is awash in details that Gibson draws little attention to, such as a porcine child prince relaxing in the rearground. The scenes flares as tribal drum music blares, citizens dance and rejoice, but the technique used to capture it is, overall, level-headed and patient, and the scene a modern masterpiece for which the film should be seen alone.
As it comes Jaguar Paw's turn to die, his friend wishes him luck. "Journey well," he recommends, but Jaguar Paw, sending his love down the well to his cached family, refuses. "I can't go. Not now." By nothing short of a miracle—or a serendipitous coincidence involving a simple natural phenomenon—the slaves not yet slaughtered, including Jaguar Paw, are spared, and remanded to the custody of their original captors, disappointed that they won't make any cash off of the bloodthirsty fanatics. So instead they use them for sadistic sport, hunting them with spears and arrows while they run, in teams of two, for their freedom down a narrow field. It recalls a similar scene with prisoners in Melville's Army of Shadows (there's a lot of movie references in the film, from a Fugitive-esque waterfall leap to a hilarious moment in which a tree falls in the path of the traveling procession of conquerors and slaves, and Zero Wolf declares, "I am walking here!"), but moreso it recalls Ambrose Bierce's story, and the popular French short film/Twilight Zone episode An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. Apocalypto's overall structure, in fact, is very reminiscent of Occurrence..., and I was ambivalently anticipating the same twist; thankfully, it doesn't arrive, though that at once feels like a smart move and a cop-out. (Yo, dat kudda bin awssum!) Jaguar Paw kills Zero Wolf's son, during another miraculous escape, and now the hunt is on, which takes up the second half of the film (hey, remember that pig hunting scene?); J.P., wounded, is tracked through the jungle in a thrilling chase sequence that seems to never end, as his pursuers are done in, one by one, by the jungle (jaguars, snakes) and J.P.'s use of the jungle as his weapon (beehive bombs, toad-poison-laced thorn-darts blown out of a rolled up leaf).
It's in these sorts of large-scale moments that Apocalypto really shines, while the small moments, few in number as the film goes on, are irritating if not worthless. At bottom, there can be no denying that Apocalypto looks beautiful, from the gorgeous jungle cinematography, the vivid sets and the meticulous costuming; in fact, it sports some of the most impressive make-up and set- and costume-design I've ever seen, thanks in no small part to production designer Tom Sanders, and a crew too large to identify each by name, who create a tactile universe that, along with the dialogue being spoken in authentic Yucatec, give the film a convincing aural and visual verisimilitude that only adds to the urgency of its execution. With hundreds of extras and baroque sets, it looks, deliciously, like it cost a lot of money—and not just, like most modern movies, for CGI effects, of which there are thankfully few.
After a shaky start, awash in "telling", Gibson firmly plants his feet in "showing" and lets pure, riveting action do the job of the cheap character development he engaged in earlier. The film ends with J.P. taking his family into the woods and speaking of finding their new beginning; he seems like an American surrogate, who needs to not only shed his fellow tribesmen but to kill off the posse of cohabiting autochthones before he can establish a new life for himself, just as we couldn't have a United States before getting out of Europe and getting dem injuns out of the way. But though J.P.'s survival is the result of another apparent miracle—the appearance of strange, floating men bearing large wooden crosses—a small knowledge of history tells you his future isn't very bright, and his children won't be hunting the same forests his ancestors have always hunted. Is Apocalypto meant as a parable for what happens to the unChristianized savage, and is it supposed to serve as a warning for secular humanists with their rampant abortions and callous stem cell research? Well, it's a Mel Gibson movie, so of course it's going to be politically problematic, even annoying, but it's a whole lot easier to get past here than it was in his previous movie, the irredeemable Passion of the Christ, a viscerally and theologically disgusting film.