An intriguing film marred by outlandish gore.
Say what you will about Mel Gibson (and so very, very much has been said); he’s one of the most provocative filmmakers around. Whereas others rely on faux controversy to sell their films (see Crash, Brokeback Mountain, et al), Gibson’s variety is the real deal.
His latest effort, the adventure epic Apocalypto, is nothing if not ambitious. Set in the jungles of what is now Central America during the last days of the Maya empire, Apocalypto features a no-name cast and dialogue spoken entirely in an obscure Maya dialect (looks like Gibson hasn’t lost his penchant for dead tongues). It’s hardly the stuff of blockbusters. Then again, Gibson’s 2004 torture-fest The Passion of the Christ earned more money than the entire continent of Africa.
Rudy Youngblood stars as Jaguar Paw, a humble Mayan whose idyllic jungle lifestyle of hunting boar and raising a family is abruptly shattered when his village is invaded and ransacked by a rival tribe. In the ensuing melee, he manages to hide his very pregnant wife and young son in a well before he’s captured and taken on a grim death march to the capital.
Upon arriving at the teeming city, a host of new and unsettling sights awaits: disease, famine, poverty and other qualities that characterize an empire in decline. Seeking to bring prosperity back to the land, the people have resorted to human sacrifice in an effort to appease the angry gods.
Each sacrifice is a gruesome affair: hearts are removed while the person is still alive, then the head is lopped off and rolled down the steps of a giant pyramid to cheering throngs waiting below.
Marked for sacrifice, Jaguar Paw’s life is spared when a timely eclipse blocks out the sun, an event the priest interprets as a sign that the gods’ appetite for blood has been sated.
From there, Apocalypto essentially becomes a chase movie. Jaguar Paw escapes the city and races back through the jungle to save his wife and kid, doggedly pursued by his former captors.
Though Apocalypto is compelling throughout, the movie heads downhill in the final half hour, as Gibson ramps up the violence and shock value with scenes that are almost laughable in their audacity. There are several cringeworthy moments, including a particularly outrageous childbirth scene. In another brutal sequence, the camera lingers a bit too long as a jaguar savagely rips a warrior’s face off – a gruesome sight that would make the readers of “Fangoria” proud.
All the brutality effectively serves to takes the viewer out of the story. It’s extraordinary frustrating to watch, as Gibson seems intent on throwing away a potentially resonant film. The final scene, which is meant to function as a pivotal moment that ties everything together and gives the film its meaning, is instead made hollow by the lunacy that immediately precedes it.
Apocalypto’s cinematography is stunning; Gibson succeeds in creating the look and feel of a distant, ancient world. The beauty and savagery of the jungle have never been depicted in such breathtaking detail on celluloid.
The cast, consisting entirely of Native Americans, does a remarkable job. Rudy Youngblood makes a breakthrough debut in the lead role, turning in a performance that transcends subtitles.
Unfortunately, their efforts are obscured by Gibson’s lust for gore. As the credits rolled, I wasn’t thinking, “Wow, what a prescient commentary on the fate of an empire.” I was thinking, “Holy crap, did I just see a jaguar rip a guy’s face off?”
And I can’t imagine that was the effect Mel was going for.