Promoting Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto as Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto is more than a matter of truth in advertising. The possessory drumroll is a declaration, a challenge, a promise: This is a movie by Mel Gibson, pals, in which everything one has ever loved, hated, been stirred by, or hooted at in the man’s repertoire to date (both on and off screen) looks even bigger and crazier. So let the buyer beware — or be titillated. Gibson’s preoccupation with torture, rage, psychosis, faith, male bonding, (fear of) homosexuality, sin, redemption, sadomasochism, and, for that matter, the fate of the rain forest — it’s all here, in a movie for which Hieronymus Bosch might have drawn the storyboards.
Without Mel Gibson, Apocalypto would just be a violent, exotic historical epic/action flick with a nebulous political message about the decline of a corrupt civilization, and the need to seek, as the script says, ”a new beginning.” It would be a hullabaloo gone native, a National Geographic grindhouse pic with subtitles, about the impulse of men to destroy one another, and the insatiable moviegoing appetite for visual novelty. But it would not feature a fellow chomping down on the testicles of a slaughtered animal, a father slit open in front of his son, a pregnant woman nearly drowning, or an extended scene of human sacrifice in which heads roll down steep temple steps like bowling balls. And the nogginless bodies that remain would not be photographed in piles inspired by old Holocaust imagery.
No, my friends, the Mel Gibson part of the marquee is crucial to the full…appreciation of this astonishing, id-soaked work. And if ”astonishing, id-soaked” ends up in the ads, then marketers have simplified my meaning.
Rather than immediately attaching a value to the intensity of the spectacle, I’d prefer to talk about the spectacle itself, which begins with the hunting of a wild boar for one pre-Columbian Mayan village. An impressive chieftain called Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead, an unknown actor like everyone else in the gigantic loinclothed and befeathered cast) leads a pride of local men on the expedition, with his soulful son Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) close at hand. The kill is celebrated with the parceling out of body parts, during which the aforementioned genitals are handed, allegedly for medicinal consumption, to Blunted (Jonathan Brewer), a hulking chap whose wife has yet to conceive a child. Laughter ensues when the ball-eating prescription turns out to be a classic Gibsonian prank involving threatened manhood and homoerotic roughhousing. Punk’d!
Then the real slaughter begins, and with it, the movie’s frenzied race to a finish in geography that serves as a Bizarro World to the glories of Terrence Malick’s The New World. The peaceful village is attacked by marauding Others (assuming Lost‘s ancestral Others decorated their faces like Christmas oranges studded with cloves), who slaughter and torture with vivid inventiveness. Those who aren’t dead are captured, among them soulful Jaguar Paw, who stares with Jesus eyes. But before he’s carted away, the resourceful young man manages to hide his pregnant wife (Dalia Hernandez) and little son.
The future is a grim one for the living: They’re replacement stock for the prevailing political rulers — deciders who have decided that the gods demand human sacrifice, and follow through in an orgy of sadism. The lingering depiction of this carnage marks one of Apocalypto‘s two climaxes, and it’s a hideous sight, something perilously close to porn. The movie’s final act — Jaguar Paw’s escape from death, his race back to try to save his family, and his pursuit by crazed Mayans determined to stay the course (led by a terrifying Raoul Trujillo as head crazy) — is as elemental in its goals as anything out of the Mad Max yarns or Braveheart. The message may be that we’re all members of a rotting civilization. Or it may be that pregnant women can do miraculous things.
Never let it be said that Gibson the director (he also co-wrote the script with former assistant Farhad Safinia) doesn’t know how to pace and build action like a pro. Freed from the roadblocks inevitable in telling the story of, say, Jesus’ crucifixion, the movie barrels and lunges on jaguar paws itself. But never forget, either, that there’s so much dark material jammed into this complicated, conflicted, challenging, and charismatic man’s own noggin that sometimes he knows not, I think, what he’s done. Here, behold, Mel Gibson has made the weirdest, most violent movie of the year.