Having successfully divided audiences and torn up box-office records with 2004's "The Passion of the Christ
," actor-turned-director Mel Gibson sets his sights on the decline of the ancient Mayan civilization in "Apocalypto." It would take courage for any filmmakerbut especially one handed a budget north of $60-million by a Disney-owned distributorto approach a story that is exceedingly grisly and violent, told strictly in a Mayan language with English subtitles, and featuring not a single recognizable star in its cast. On the upside, Gibson is a masterful craftsman with a flair for eye-popping visuals, and no amount of anti-Semitic comments and drunken late-night joyrides can take that away from him. "Apocalypto" grasps the throats of its audience and drags them kicking and screaming through over two hours of decapitations, stabbings, jaguar attacks, torture devices, poisonings, hearts getting ripped out of chests, and various other scenes of torture. The film is a technically accomplished achievement, and has at least one "wow" momentit comes at the very endbut these accolades are ultimately at the service of a simplistic plot that meanders right along while searching for a point.
Set near the end of the 15th century, a tight-knit tribe's peaceful way of life is suddenly destroyed when their camp is ransacked, leaving half of the adults slaughtered and the other half held captive as they await either enslavement or death. Taken back to the Mayan kingdom where the women are promptly sold and the men are to be sacrificed to a higher power, their fates would appear to be finite. For one young man, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), whose pregnant wife and little son he has hidden back at their camp and promised to return to, there is no option. After Jaguar escapes into the jungle, his captors hot on his trail and danger lurking at every turn, a fortuitous switch in power turns the pursuers into the hunted.
Shot in the remote jungles of Mexico with a cast of mostly first-time actors, "Apocalypto" is certainly authentic in its representation of a particular time and people seldom seen in film. From the minimalist but detailed costume design to the use of the Mayan language to the humane, unstodgy early portrait of the tribe's everyday living and communications with one another, writer-director Mel Gibson and co-screenwriter Farhad Safinia have done a painstaking job at making this particular world come alive. Obviously the movie was made in present times, but much of what shows up onscreen looks as if cameras were transported five hundred years into the past to pick up footage.
Once the setup has occurred and a few of the characters have endeared themselves to the viewermost notably main hero Rudy and an oft picked-upon friend of his named Blunted (Jonathan Brewer) who is being pressured by an overbearing mother to give her a grandchildall hell breaks loose. From this point on, "Apocalypto" becomes a harshly violent adventure pic that plays like a cross between "I Spit on Your Grave
" and "The Most Dangerous Game," with inspiration from Terrence Malick tossed in for good measure. Culminating into what amounts to a full hour of chasing and stalking and eviscerating, the film can be relied upon to hold the viewer's rapt attention, but to what end? As far as can be deciphered, Gibson's central ideas are that human barbarism has existed throughout the agesno surprise thereand that there is a natural predisposition to reject all that is foreign. A comment about the world we live in, circa 2006? Perhaps, but these themes are an afterthought when stood next to the practically nonstop savagery on display. For what it's worth, Gibson's attempts at symbolism are clumsily obvious too, as when Jaguar falls into a pit of mud that turns him into the black animal that is his name.
For relative amateurs, the performances are of a high class. Rudy Youngblood turns in an auspicious, physically grueling acting debut as Jaguar, whose vulnerability takes a backseat to sheer ferocity once he endures the sight of his friends being killed and manages to escape the same fate. Dalia Hernandez brings strength and conviction to Seven, Jaguar's pregnant wife, who must fend for herself and her son once they are left stranded in a deep pit with no help in sight. And as Blunted, Jonathan Brewer is immensely likable in a tragic role. For a time near the beginning, it is he rather than Youngblood whom the viewer latches onto and cares the most about.
There isn't anything wrong with violence and bloodshed in moviesheck, "Hostel
" is one of my favorite films of the yearbut with few detectable purposes behind the use of it, "Apocalypto" feels occasionally exploitative and brutal for brutality's sake. Furthermore, the comeuppances of the villains are shot with an almost joyful delivery that delights in misery when, if taking the picture's social themes seriously, should have instead been filmed with a resigned sadness. As capably made as it is on the surface, "Apocalypto" confuses empty chaos and an untold number of lost lives for meaning. By the end, there's nothing to grab onto except spare limbs and innards.