Like his movie about William Wallace and the one about Christ, Mel Gibson’s unsubtle film about the final days of the Mayans is soaked in blood, sweat and tears. A small tribe of happy-go-lucky hunters lives with their wives and children in a remote village in the Central American jungle. Gibson’s approach to this material is audacious – an opening gambit involving a group of men trapping and killing a tapir, then divvying up various savory and unsavory bits of the animal among themselves, is written and staged almost like a scene that might open a high-school sex comedy circa the early 1980s. (Well, a Mayan high-school sex comedy, anyway.) It’s part of Gibson’s strategy to set the good Mayans — simple villagers, live off the land, mean no harm, etc etc etc — apart from the bad Mayans.
And when a group of blood-thirsty city-dwellers arrive out in the sticks, setting fire to humble huts and abducting the men in a long sequence replete with rape and murder, Apocalypto reveals its mean streak. You don’t watch this movie to see whether the hero, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), can escape ritual sacrifice atop an ancient pyramid to return home and rescue his hidden wife and son. (Because, come on, not even Mel Gibson makes a movie that ends with a kid and a pregnant woman starving to death at the bottom of a well.) You watch it to see how many times he can be stabbed, speared, clubbed, nearly drowned and almost eaten by a wild animal — and still return home to rescue his wife and son.
Is that necessarily a bad thing? No — that’s entertainment. It’s the visceral portrayal of human triumph over misery, and the odds, that gives Apocalypto its juice. Still, of all the American directors now working — including the guys who make the Saw movies — Mel Gibson may have the most pathological fixation on human suffering. Unlike a movie like Saw or, heck, Turistas, where the violence is seen through the abstracting lens of an elaborate horror movie set-up or a socio-political allegory, Gibson’s violence is straightforward and in your face. A man doesn’t just get attacked by a jaguar; he gets his face bitten off by a jaguar. Another man doesn’t just get speared in the back; he gets speared in the back of the head, so the tip of the spear can exit through his mouth as he falls face-first toward the camera. You get the idea this is how Gibson sees the world — not just full of pain, but spectacularly so. (You also realize that, as it stands, Apocalypto represents a huge missed opportunity for an IMAX 3D attraction.)
He’s also not much worried about verisimilitude. Whatever else it may be, Gibson’s fantasy about the last days of the Mayan civilization is just that. Experts may quibble about what a ritual group sacrifice might really look like, what a Mayan woman might actually wear over her breasts, or whether it makes sense for Gibson to imagine a village of hunters in the first place. (Now that I’ve done some rudimentary Googlework, I’m even questioning my use of the term “Mayan” as an adjective in this review.) And if you’ve read anything at all about this movie, you already know that the last reel features [SPOILER!] a New World beachhead that didn’t happen in the real world until hundreds of years after the decline of the Mayan civilization.
But Gibson succeeds in building a mood. Even though I got bored during the long scenes where the village abductees are led, strung on a pole like Christmas lights, along hazardous pathways toward a yet-unseen Mayan city, I have to admit that it lulled me into the appropriate sense of comfort with the jungle. And when the poor saps are finally led into town, it’s an unspeakable model of civilization, with a bloodthirsty mob assembled to applaud the spectacle of body parts bouncing, like bowling balls, down the stairsteps of the huge, pyramid-shaped temples. According to an AP story (http://abcnews.go.com/Entertainment/wireStory?id=2488462), Gibson has tried to suggest that he’s mounting some kind of critique of the Iraq War, but Apocalypto feels more like a simple story about the differences between country folk and city folk — how, when you almost get your heart ripped out in Times Square, it makes you wish with all your heart you could just go back to Kansas. B-