18 June 2007


Directed by: Mel Gibson
Written by: Mel Gibson & Farhad Safinia

Grade: B+

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.


Anonymous said...

Wow, I missed the whole "Beware Heathans" message from this film. I did not like this film. As with Gibson's last film I found this to be an excuse for over excessive violence that everyone will enjoy because of its historical themes. I find this movie to be flawed extremely for there is a very thin plot and extreme difficulty in criticing the acting (since it is in an ancient language and culture). I am not sure the Gibson has done anything special here except to find a way to make movies in which all plot and acting ability is ignored.
I think that main reason that I missed the great Christian message, is that the ending is just lame.

Clayton L. White said...

The ending is quite lame. It worked better in Lord of the Flies. But to pass Gibson's work off as simple exercises in violence completely diminishes the man's talent behind the camera. He has a totally uncompromising, singular vision that sets him apart from most filmmakers.

I think Henry is onto something here, the film is completely manipulative, but it works best when he just puts the pedal down. This is a masterpiece of action filmmaking, and it should be seen as that.

I admire his work, and I will defend it. The Passion, in my opinion, is a solid film. It's not perfect, and he milks the emotion out of every scene, but I was won over the impact of it. Apocalypto is a little less pretentious, and as such, it's a better film.

Anonymous said...

You may agree with Henry that it only works when he puts the pedal down, but I don't think that makes good film making. Just putting the pedal to the metal in film making just means that you go fast enough to distract people from the fact that you have NO plot. I guess the thing that Gibson has figured out is that if you have no plot go very fast. And the faster you go the less plot you should have. That is his cinemetic contribution as a director.
I mean to compare Gibson to another actor turned director- Clint Eastwood, who is known for his slower films but great plot and story telling. Gibson does not hold up. I guess it goes to show that if you become famous making fast plot free films (Lethal Weapon) then you will contiue to make them.
The only difference for me between Apocalypto and Pirates of the Caribean is that Apocalypto does not try to add to its plot line with side stories, it sticks to small simple plot. They both go fast and have thin plots.
I think that you have be dazzled by the magic of Mel Gibson. But you will find that there is no magic quarter (or plot) but some who just moves fast.

Clayton L. White said...

When a filmmaker has enough talent, they can get away with a lack of plot. The makers of Pirates have no talent, so they indulge in an overabundance of plot.

I agree that Eastwood is a more talented filmmaker, but he has many more films on his resume, and Gibson, as an actor, has worked with less talented filmmakers than what Eastwood did as an actor, and I think that says something for Gibson. He has an acute visual sense, and that makes up for many of his flaws, including the lack of plot.

Apocalypto is not the first film to succeed in light of its thin plot. Have you ever seen The Birds, or Days of Heaven, or Night of the Hunter? Little plot, great films. Now, don't get me wrong, Gibson is not on a par with Hitchcock, or Malick, or Laughton, who only made one film, but he is growing as a filmmaker, and this is his best work so far.

Anonymous said...

You are right, Gibson does not deserve to be mentioned along with Hitchock, Malick, or Laughton. These people had great cinematography, Gibson has violence.
You are right, Gibson is growing as a film making- and it appears to be aware from plot. His films have less and less of a plot each time. I think for his next film he can just shoot the ultimate fighting bouts. I know just the guy he can film.

Clayton L. White said...

Gibson, too has great cinematography, and I've always said that his work is too masochistic, but his talent is apparent and his eye is sharp.

I would pay to see his version of an ultimate fighting bout.

Anonymous said...

If "pedal to the metal" does not make for good filmmaking alone, neither does a film only dripping with plot. Filmmaking is a combination of many intertwining elements, such as story, but also execution/form/style. A great film, one that would get an A or an A+ from me, would probably (though surely not always) be one that combines the two effortlessly and brilliantly...like Vertigo; one that only captures one or the other, like Apocalypto, can still be a good film, as I argue in the review.

You describe Apocalypto as though it's secretly devoid of plot, and once this fact is exposed the film is exposed as a fraud. I think that's a mischaracterization; Apocalypto and its makers are well aware of its thin plot but don't care. The story is slight; to appropriate a tired old phrase, it's not what the movie's about but how it's about it.

In answer to some other points, Apocalypto is violent but it's not merely an exercise in violence. And maybe Gibson is no Clint Eastwood, but while Mr. Eastwood makes some good to great films, he's also very capable of making bad films, excessively maudlin, manipulative movies. Don't let's pretend he's some sort of directorial touchstone. And Lethal Weapon is not plot-free; in fact, it's respected "in the industry" and by many critics as being one of the finest screenplays ever produced. I don't know if I'd go that far, but it's a good flick and shouldn't be disparaged so off-hand!

And, as Clayton rightfully points out, Gibson has great cinematography; Apocalypto isn't anything if not gorgeously composed.

Anonymous said...

Gibson is a decient decent director who can hirer an even better cinematographer and editor. The man can outsource. I think that you are loyal to a fault- you have blinders on.
Go see the ulimate fighting by Mel. The only way that movie would be good would be if HE got in the ring.

Clayton L. White said...

Henry is absolutely right, you can't boil a films faults or successes down to one single element. As Henry points out, it's quite rare that a film is able to find such a balance, he mentions Vertigo, which is a perfect film in every way, possibly the greatest film ever made, and while a film like Apocalytpo isn't anywhere near that level, you certainly can't say that it's not accomplished in certain respects. It's too strong a film to be written off by it's "lack of plot."