Film Review #68: Apocalypto
Director: Mel Gibson
Cast: Rudy Youngblood, Raoul Trujillo, Dalia Hernandez
Have you noticed that we’re getting back to basics? Blood Diamond’s Danny Archer tosses off some fancy driving and James Bond’s glove box might stock a defibrillator, but this winter season’s three major action movies really like their high speed chases best on foot. Like Bond himself, Casino Royale’s opening sequence is eventually over-done. DiCaprio’s diamond smuggler, unable to make the summit, is carried the last few feet by Djimon Honsou’s African innocent until – in a quite respectable echo of Gary Cooper’s Robert Jordan from 1943’s classic For Whom the Bell Tolls – he refuses escape to hold off murderous pursuers. Then there’s Apocalypto. Now here is the Cadillac of foot chases – hyper-extended, heart-bursting, masterfully suspended at just the right brief intervals of rationed exposition, audacious.
Apocalypto is the story of young Jaguar Paw (the arresting Rudy Youngblood) and his run. Jaguar Paw is a sort of primeval crown prince, first seen leading the young men on a hunt in his father’s Mesoamerican jungle circa 1500, last seen turning his back on the coast and leading his wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez) and their two boys into what he hopes is the safety of the deep interior forest. In between, Mayan warriors sack his people’s small camp and haul him to the nightmarish capital, intending to rip his heart out in ritual sacrifice to the sun god. Because Jaguar Paw kills Zero Wolf’s son while escaping, this Mayan general (Raoul Trujillo, channeling Charleton Heston in his better days) goes after the young hunter with ferocious obsession. I know he terrified me. When Zero Wolf jumps right over that waterfall after him, my eyes widened just like Jaguar Paw’s did on-screen.
There is a lovely and powerful sequence after this when the forest forcibly takes Jaguar Paw back as its own, swallowing him in quicksand. When he emerges after a long moment, a muddy hulk, he has found his own ferocious clarity and sets about picking off his pursuers. Meanwhile, Jaguar Paw’s pregnant wife and little boy hide in a deep rock crevice, unable to run anywhere. Gibson checks in on them with short, nuanced interludes whose stillness and close-up intensity effectively counterpoint the headlong rush through the jungle above. Gibson has an often overlooked gift for coaxing delicate, moving performances from women that are oases in violent mayhem – recall the scene from The Passion of the Christ (2004) in which Mary quietly mops up her son’s blood from the cobblestones.
Mel Gibson says he first wanted to make a “high velocity action-adventure chase film” and then sought an ancient culture in which to place it. He settled on the Maya because of parallels he perceived with current-day excesses and the opportunity for parable. So he prefaces Apocalypto with historian Will Durant’s remark, “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within,” and in closing dedicates the film to the Biblical Abel, slain by his brother. The order of Gibson’s approach helps explain why Apocalypto’s rousing power as a chase yarn doesn’t extend further and match the deeper resonance of, say, Atanarjurat: Fast Runner, the 2001 film produced by Canadian Inuits in which the central chase across the icy wasteland arises organically from that culture’s legends about an evil spirit menacing the community. As ever, Gibson’s own preoccupations, in league with his considerable talent, lead him astray.
The film’s first weekend is instructive of the film’s allure and its contradiction. The day after Apocalypto opened on December 8th, the Washington Post published a lengthy article laying out the concerns of Mayan researchers from a half dozen US universities. On Sunday Apocalypto slid into the #1 US box-office spot and its distributor, Disney Studios, estimated the first weekend’s revenues at $14.2 million.
Gibson does not claim outright for Apocalypto the rigorous historical accuracy that he did for his Passion. You can read analyses elsewhere that debunk exactly how Gibson structures that film’s exaggerations and savagery to anti-Semitic ends. Even so, I know of no other film that captures as convincingly how remote an outpost Jerusalem might have been to the Romans – how seedy and dilapidated. Gibson brilliantly sets Pilate’s meeting with Jesus in a formal public courtyard that’s a crude, badly proportioned copy of vaster, gleaming Roman public sites, with steep, ungraceful stairs and dirty pillars. As powerful cinema, does this add depth to Pilate as Christ’s reluctant antagonist or make blaming the Jews easier?
In the Washington Post, William Booth details how the experts see Apocalypto’s careless history and wonders about its impression on viewers new to the Maya. Instead of acknowledging the thousand-year reign of a complex, subtle, even avant-garde civilization, he says Gibson depicted the Mayan capital – disease-ridden slums, children foraging in sewage and the most zombie-like pagan worshipers this side of Peter Jackson’s King Kong – as a “ghoulscape.” Where Jaguar Paw grasps his fate in the temple by reading murals, Gibson has digitally altered a major historic Mayan fresco to show a warrior king holding a dripping human heart when his hand really holds nothing. Gibson got many fashion details right – the tattoos, facials scars, ear plugs – but key scholars disagree on whom the Mayas targeted for sacrifice, say there is no evidence of large-scale slavery and no evidence of the Nazi-style mass open graves that Jaguar Paw stumbles into at the capital’s edge. Their concerns include significant confusion of time periods, ritual, art and architectural styles, even a haphazard confusion between the Mayan and Aztec cultures. Booth says some worry how today’s six million Mayan descendants in Central and South American will view Apocalypto when it’s released there next year.
Likewise, Apocalypto’s extreme violence is a relentless, subliminal and time-warping argument to absolve those Europeans just off-shore in advance. The scene is which a delicate fountain of blood sprays straight out from the most sadistic Mayan foot soldier’s spiked temple is a window on someone’s dedication to the uses of illusion. See, they did it to themselves. Talk about getting back to basics. This is why Socrates wanted to ban the artists.
Published at Stylusmagazine.com, 12/13/06.