Mel Gibson is sick, but his new film profits from his weakness. When he inserted a photo of himself into the trailer for Apocalypto, he wasn’t just needling his critics—he was both prophesizing his anti-Semitic tirade in Los Angeles and the lunatic violence this film releases onto movies screens like some bibilical flood. Tragically, Apocalypto will make more money in its opening weekend than The New World did in its entire domestic run: This is because Gibson sees the fall of the Mayan empire as a big action-movie thrill ride, replete with a jaguar pursuit that subs for a high-octane car chase and a vicious animal attack that could have been swiped from Jurassic Park. What makes these set pieces unique to Gibson is their perverse intensity, like a slip-slide-and-whack slaying which ends with a stream of blood gushing out of a man’s head like water from a fountain (the closest the film comes to a bullet-time effect). Fanboys will lap it up, but what about the rest of the world?
When Gibson went batshit in Los Angeles, even his knee-jerk apologists could no longer ignore the anti-Semitism that colors The Passion of the Christ, just as the director’s homophobia is evident in Braveheart. But his public apology inspired sympathy, maybe even forgiveness, because, for the first time, it felt as if Gibson was fessing up to something: that “deep rotting fear” that also haunts the Mayans throughout Apocalypto. No less visionary but every bit as dubious as Passion of the Christ, the film is very much the work of a flawed individual—a big, hulking, passionately raw spectacle of doom and devastation that, at the very least, excitingly validates the quote by Will Durant that introduces the story: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.” When Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) and his friends, during a hunting expedition, encounter another tribe, who speak of their land being ravaged and urge for a new beginning, it is evident that the end of an empire looms near, but it is not the Spanish that are coming (not yet, at least), but a master race of Mayans looking for sacrifices.
Gibson views Jaguar Paw as a Christ-like figure, staging his kidnapped people’s journey from their village to the Mayan stronghold not unlike Jesus’s journey to the cross. Gibson has no interest in extolling the riches of the Mayan culture, only its vile decadence (to the director, this was a culture that deserved to be conquered), but while the film’s contempt is stronger than its reverence, Gibson’s rapt, almost juvenile attention span can be touching, as when he sets up the way Jaguar Paw and his friends punk the chubby Blunted (Jonathan Brewer), who is first tricked into eating the balls of a boar, then deceived into rubbing a red powder on his cock as a means of finally impregnating his wife. When Blunted runs out of his tent, clutching his balls and landing in a trough of water (his wife follows suit, her mouth burning—get it?), it would seem that Gibson has vaudeville fans in mind, but he’s at least interested in looking beyond the bloodlust of his fantasy Mayans.
On their way to the Mayan temple, Jaguar Paw is taunted by a cruel man who gives him the name Almost—because he almost escaped the raping and pillaging of their village, which left Jaguar Paw’s son and pregnant wife at the bottom of a pit with no means of escape. On their journey, they will encounter a little girl who is shrouded in mystery (she hovers over a dead woman, ostensibly her mother, marks on both their bodies that may or may not have come from the white man) and who throws a fierce prophecy to the wind. It is as if she were warning of Christ’s resurrection. Indeed, when Jaguar Paw escapes his captors, who hold court like Herod and celebrate the day like the people of Babel, or the Temple of Doom (take a whiff the emperor’s fat-little-piggy son, then dig that shot from the point of view of a decapitated head!), Gibson imagines Jaguar Paw like Jesus at the very end of Passion of the Christ: the original last-action hero.
But there is a difference between Christ and Jaguar Paw: Though he busts a move like a sick motha, Jaguar Paw doesn’t so much itch for vengeance as he thrills for survival. Apocalypto finds something spiritual in dramatic juxtapositions of emotion. As Jaguar Paw, a lethal weapon of a man, returns to his village, his vigilance is contrasted with that of his wife, who struggles, on the brink of giving birth, in her stone pit against the forces of mother nature—killing an ape-like creature, ingeniously stitching up a wound on her son’s leg with decapitated ant jaws, and trying to stay above water when it begins pouring. Like Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto is neither great nor healthy, but it’s impassioned. When Gibson allows for scenes such as Blunted’s mother-in-law, after she isn’t sold into slavery by the Mayans, connecting emotionally for the first time with her son-in-law in the face of their hopeless spiritual depletion, the director recalls the great Mary-Jesus flashbacks from Passion of the Christ, offering us a glimpse of that heart he otherwise delights in ripping from people’s chests.