Let it not be said that Mel Gibson is unambitious. He’s obviously willing to go to great lengths to get his stories told: Dead languages, obscure sections of history, and controversial topics are no strangers to Mel, and there’s an artistic bravery in this that’s easy to admire. But why is he so hell-bent on spinning these fantastical yarns that require him to go to such extravagant lengths? Because Gibson wants us to know that he’s a serious filmmaker.
But there’s a problem — a big one. For all his ambition as a storyteller, for all his fervor as a visionary, Mel Gibson is still just Sergeant Martin Riggs from the Lethal Weapon franchise — the lovable cliché who makes winsome quips, saves the day, and then brutalizes the bad guy. And that’s all he’s ever wanted to be. His tools of artistry are totally at odds with the portraits he paints, and like a trickster, he dazzles and astounds you with peerlessly executed visions in one hand while doling out labored machismo with the other. He has the eye of Werner Herzog and the brain of Michael Bay.
And his directorial choices are the least of his problems, in my estimation. Frankly, all of this recent controversy surrounding his anti-Semitism just seems like the scant tip of the iceberg. Anyone who’s seen his films knows that the man has an obsession with human suffering and violence that is borderline certifiable. His protagonists deal out and endure comic-book levels of physical brutality and contend with inhumanly sadistic villains who revel in inflicting agony. And if you didn’t think it could get any worse than The Passion of the Christ … get ready. With Apocalypto, all bets are off.
Gibson’s latest takes us to 16th-century Central America and the outskirts of the waning Mayan Empire. As is typical in his films, the central protagonists live in a peaceful hamlet far from the reach of political civilization. Inhabiting this jungle haven is the tribe of Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a young hunter surrounded by his friends and family and basking in the quiet idylls of kinship and tradition. But civilization comes knocking, and marauders from the nearby political center raid the village, raping, murdering, and enslaving the inhabitants. Jaguar Paw and many of the others are bound and marched away, though his wife and son have managed to hide precariously in a cave, where they can’t escape without his help.
The captives are led away and driven to the city, the center of a decadent society that demands copious human sacrifice to stave off the waning of its power. The bewildered villagers are marched through crowded streets of screaming onlookers, ululating priests, and the dying infirm. They’re led to a pyramid temple where, after passing a heap of corpses, they climb and confront the cheering throngs. A group of mewling priests and nobles preside as each victim is gutted, their still-beating hearts ripped from their chests, and then decapitated and trundled down the pyramid steps.
Through some lucky coincidences, Jaguar Paw manages to escape and flees into the jungle, closely pursued by his extremely sick captors, led by Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo) and Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios). Jaguar Paw’s quest summarily becomes escape, rescue, and revenge.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by Apocalypto in every regard — the stupendous locales; the otherworldly images and people; the excellent, unknown actors; the alien language. The cinematography is amazing, and the film is shot with an unerring eye for beauty over jaw-dropping production designs; Apocalypto succeeds in creating a world unlike any you’ve ever seen on celluloid.
Yet what is most overwhelming is the intense, maddening savagery that exists in this world. Did Mel Gibson painstakingly recreate the Mayan realms to offer an allegory on the decline of civilization? No. At least, not really. He did it to showcase a wholly unique aesthetic for violence and barbarism. It’s confounding to realize that the amazing visual veracity Gibson achieved here was probably only done so that he could watch the inhabitants bludgeon one another, to gore and gut and mutilate each other to unprecedented excesses and with undisguised relish. Blood spatters the screen while madmen chant and writhe; the dead and dying bellow as the hero flees over literal fields of corpses. One doesn’t watch Apocalypto, one endures it.
Oh, Mel wants us to know he’s serious, all right, so much so he’s willing to pull the ultimate wolf-in-sheep’s-clothing trick on a grand scale. He’s wrapped the fabric of a majestic historical epic and paean to cultural conscience over what is essentially an action movie and gorefest. The result: An absolute nightmare from beginning to end. As much as I have to praise the film for its amazing technical achievements and engaging story, my final thought on the matter is only this: Mel Gibson is one sick motherfucker.
Phillip Stephens is the lead critic for Pajiba. He lives in Fayetteville, AR.
Apocalypto / Phillip Stephens
Film | December 9, 2006 | Comments ()