Mel Gibson’s Mayan fable Apocalypto is one of the most viscerally powerful and intensely upsetting movies of the year. But it’s not the shots of severed heads, vivisected torsos and pierced flesh that disturb; it’s the closeups of those who witness or perpetrate violence. The latter are the cinematic version of what gamblers call “tells”—incidental gestures that reveal the filmmaker’s intent. The greatness of the movie’s brutal, tragic first half—which charts a Mayan tribe’s enslavement by a nation-state of militant, human-sacrificing cultists—can be found in close-ups of human faces while suffering is inflicted or endured. Men are strangled in their marriage beds by unseen assailants; women are threatened with rape and sexual servitude while their hogtied husbands look on, weeping with rage; an enemy soldier picks up a screaming child and hurls him like a medicine ball, just to see what happens.
This horrific sadism is not an abstraction, much less a thug’s provocation. Nor is it, as some ungenerous and unobservant critics have claimed, “fetishistic.” John Woo’s violence could be described as fetishistic, because it’s all about light and shadow, rhythm and color; the people are abstracted in death, like dancers, or figures in a mural. But in the first half of Apocalypto, Gibson is moved by simple human routines, and appalled by viciousness that disrupts of destroys those routines. He brings a John Fordian cornball sense to the knockabout first-act slapstick (the hero’s warrior dad gives a rub-on aphrodisiac to a fellow warrior who can’t get it up—and we discover it was a vicious prank when the warrior stumbles out of his tent fanning his burning genitals, followed by his wife, who needs a drink of water right now). He photographs the hero, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), doting on his pregnant wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez), with an intimate comfort that only a father could summon; Gibson even shows the subcutaneous bulge caused by the infant’s kicking against the wall of mom’s womb, and photographs it with real tenderness, as if he’s never gotten over what a miracle it is. And when the thugs invade and dismantle Jaguar Paw’s village, forcing him to hide his wife and son in a pit that’s like a deep well, Gibson plainly demonstrates the absence of morality that’s the hallmark of bullies, from Roman Centurions, Inquisitors and Gestapo through soccer hooligans and street-corner gangstas. He makes the depiction of brutality as frankly upsetting—and hyper-realistically protracted—as possible, to jolt you out of your moviegoer’s jadedness and make you feel sadness, nausea, righteous anger, something. Any reaction will do, as long as it’s not indifference.
Indeed, Gibson makes a case for indifference to suffering as the greatest of human crimes—the one from which all others spring. The most chilling images in the movie are the reaction shots of those who look upon sadistic cruelty either with glee or with no particular opinion. In the human sacrifice sequence, for instance, Gibson repeatedly cuts between close-ups of the high priest (Fernando Hernandez) presiding over the heart removals, decapitations and mass chantings, and the nearby king (Rafael Velez), who’s so anesthetized by drugs or by exposure to mass murder (perhaps both) that he barely seems to have a pulse. You can’t even say he’s lost in thought, because his dead face and slack body (it seems to be merging with the throne) suggest that he has no thoughts to get lost in. Equally shocking—maybe more so, because it’s funny—is the reaction of the queen (Diana Botello) when the high priest finishes sacrificing his first victim in the sequence and moves on to the second. The latter’s suffering is depicted partly from the victim’s own point-of-view—a surprising, formally risky touch that compels identification—but midway through, Gibson cuts to the queen, who rolls her eyes as if to say, “Please, not this again.”
Gibson’s right-on attitude toward cruelty and suffering is schizophrenically juxtaposed with one that’s more familiar, less deep, and in this context, a lot more problematic: a R-rated action star’s very ’80s impulse toward pulp cartoonishness and gross-out showboating. Both qualities lope to the fore during Apocalypto’s second hour. At the film’s halfway mark—after Jaguar Paw escapes his tormentors and races home through the jungle to reunite with his young son and pregnant wife, who are still trapped in a pit where he hid them—the soulful, penetrating close-ups that typify the movie’s first half are supplanted by more stylized, even cliched action close-ups: Zen pulp brooding and badass pre-fight stares reminiscent of anime, video games and martial arts pictures. The replacement of one type of close-up with another coincides with the movie’s transformation from a primal fable about individual lives shattered by oppression (like the slave ship scenes in Amistad or the Kristillnacht sequence in Schindler’s List by way of Edgar Rice Burroughs) to a more conventional, revenge-driven, fight-and-flight action picture, hugely indebted to Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey, the Rambo and Mad Max trilogy, Martin Campbell’s underappreciated No Escape, and Michael Mann’s The Last of the Mohicans, from which Gibson borrows not just situations and setpieces, but certain iconic shots. (Gibson’s cinematographer is the great Dean Semler, who shot The Road Warrior, Dances with Wolves and The Alamo; his trademark combination of flamboyant high-speed crane moves and hair-trigger rack focuses gives the action an omniscient wondrousness—we’re everywhere at once.)
This is the kind of movie where the hero sustains an arrow wound to his torso that should lay him up for weeks, yet keeps racing homeward at Jesse Owens velocity, leaping off thousand-foot-high waterfalls (a Mohicans setpiece so often pilfered that it should be retired for a while), climbing tall trees to elude his foes, outrunning a hungry jaguar and improvising a blowgun from a hollow reed, a handful of thorns and a poison tree frog. You don’t question it because by the time Apocalypto shifts into run-through-the-jungle mode, Gibson has already established (via a curse laid on the bad guys by a plague-stricken orphan girl) that Jaguar Paw is a prophesied savoir who’s preordained to escape his tormentors and inflict payback (a warrior favored by his god), and because tall-tale absurdity is catnip to the imagination no matter what century you’re living in. One could argue, persuasively, that Apocalypto is not more subject to plausibility gripes than the mayhem described in The Iliad: ““He brought him down with a glinting jagged rock/Massive, top of the heap behind the rampart’s edge/No easy lift for a fighter even in prime strength/Working with both hands, weak as men are now/Giant Ajax hoisted it high and hurled it down/crushed the rim of the fighter’s four-horned helmet/and cracked his skull to splinters, bloody pulp.”
But the plausibility of action and the depiction of its kinetic particulars are different things; when we consider them, we circle back to the matter of “tells”—and in the second half of Apocalypto, the tells are not flattering to Gibson. The violence in the second half is far less serious and disturbing than Homer’s violence—and for that matter, Peckinpah’s violence in The Wild Bunch, Scorsese’s in Taxi Driver and Goodfellas and (since Gibson dares direct comparison) Mann’s violence in the more elegant, politically and morally subtle Mohicans. The first hour is hyper-real while maintaining a grip on reality (it’s the emotions that are strategically exaggerated, not the brutality itself); the second is more abstracted and shallow—a series of Olympic-velocity foot chases and t-shirt-ready iconic poses (including an image of Jaguar Paw rising from a quicksand pit that’s Apocalypse Now by way of Predator).
It’s impossible to say whether Gibson is straining after the mythic and settling for the cartoonish or if his filmmaking sensibility is so conditioned by his long stint as an R-rated action superstar that he just can’t help reverting. In any event, the second half seems intended less to confirm eternal facts about the human species than to make Friday night crowds recoil and then laugh at the director’s class clown audacity. (Maybe this is another eternal fact: people don’t mind being challenged if you pander, too.) An animal attacking a man’s face gets multiple, super-tight closeups, the better to show you the skin and muscle coming off; near the end of the movie, a warrior falls to his knees after a coup-de-grace and stares blankly into space while a thin jet of blood sprays from his opened skull, Holy Grail-style. It’s kewl, no doubt. But in artistic seriousness, it’s not far removed from the scene in Commando where Arnold exits the toolshed and shears off the top of an enemy’s head by backhanding a circular saw blade, Frisbee-style.
None of this should suggest that the second half of Apocalypto is unworthy of attention. On the contrary, it’s one of the most relentless and thrilling pulp action movies ever. I wrote in a March 10, 2004 New York Press column about The Passion of the Christ that “Gibson is the most visually gifted movie star to pick up a camera since Charles Laughton made The Night of the Hunter back in 1955”; from its frantic lateral tracking shots (seen through a high-def video image, the reflected sunlight on wet leaves blurs into quivering tracer streaks) to its god’s-eye view of Seven and her son in the pit, to the cutaway to the wind-buffeted trees when Jaguar Paw’s father dies (like he’s watching his own soul escape), Apocalypto makes me glad I went out on that limb. That horrific yet empathetic first half is so Passion of the Christ-like –richly imagined but emotionally direct, and unusually attuned to suffering—that it resonates throughout the he-man action of the second half, and gives it a serious aura that it only partly deserves. It all comes back to emotional heft. Gibson establishes this story’s stakes at the outset, and they’re resolutely human-scaled. This is Mayan history told not by a professor, but by a pop mythmaker who’s grown richer than most studio bosses, yet retains a working Joe’s sensibility—a fondness for the lowball gag, the sentimental moment, the flamboyant exaggeration. In retrospect, the opening portentous quote from Will Durant (“A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within”) feels like a bait-and-switch. Gibson runs away from specific political analogy, from politics generally, while holding onto a muscular spiritualism. Apocalypto is historically and politically resonant in the way that Stagecoach is, which is to say, not very. It’s deliberately mythopoetic and ahistorical; it’s Fanfare for the Common Warrior, driving home the fact that when great upheavals occur, non-elite citizens are less interested in arguing the fine points of philosophy, spirituality or patriotism than in getting themselves and their loved ones the hell out of Dodge. Like Odysseus, Jaguar Paw labors under expectations of leadership, but ultimately his frenzied quest is about his own survival and his family’s (his progeny’s). He just wants to reunite with his wife and son and watch his new child being born. But it’s not easy, because from ground level, history is just one damned thing after another—a point that’s etched in bronze with the film’s final image, arguably the greatest action movie punchline since Chuck Heston found lady liberty face-down in the sand.
So any sense of letdown is relative: Apocalypto goes from being transcendently great to being merely beautiful and thrilling—from being unlike anything you seen to being a version of something you’ve seen many times, with some idiosyncratic, sometimes stunningly unique touches. That qualifier “merely” judges the movie only in relation to itself; Apocalypto’s feverish intensity is music for the eyes.