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Apocalypto   C+

Touchstone Pictures / Icon Productions

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Mel Gibson
Writers: Mel Gibson, Farhad Safinia
Cast: Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez, Jonathan Brewer, Morris Birdyellowhead, Carlos Emilio Baez, Amilcar Ramirez, Israel Rios.

Review by Rob Vaux

Try as I might, I can't dismiss the power of Mel Gibson's filmmaking. It's crude, unsubtle, and full of appallingly reactionary moral undercurrents, but it's also equally hard to forget. He clocks you over the skull with it until you can't see straight. He jams it straight down your throat without bothering to ask for mercy. And as much as I wish to deny it, it contains a raw strength that lingers in the mind after many far more refined movies fade away.

None of that necessarily makes Apocalypto a pleasant experience, however, or even a worthwhile one. For while its power can be overwhelming, so too is it harnessed in the name of the truly grotesque, presenting a cavalcade of horrors rendered with lovingly sadomasochistic care. (This should come as no surprise to anyone familiar with Gibson's previous cinematic blood orgies.) Beneath that, simplistic messages of death and redemption arise in thuddingly literal terms, swaddled with quasi-religious musings that often mistake deus ex machina for cosmic fate. And yet for all that, it defies you to look away, saturating the audience with primal, savage emotions and even bringing a certain poetry to its version of the Hero's Journey set during the declining days of the Mayan Empire.

It also appears blissfully free of the late unpleasantness surrounding Gibson himself, and the infamous traffic stop in which he planted his foot straight in his anti-Semitic mouth. There's little of that to latch onto here, and those willing to set such concerns aside will find few connections between the incident and the film. Instead, it makes extremely unsubtle comparisons between the fall of empires and the mess America currently finds itself in, as well as providing a few nasty lessons on Darwinism both social and literal. More directly, it tells the story of Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), an Indian villager whose home and tribe are slaughtered by the Mayans in a punitive raid. He and the other survivors are taken back to a nearby city, where an eager crowd awaits their sacrifice in hopes of lifting the plague that has ravaged the crops and decimated the populace. Behind him, he leaves a wife (Dalia Hernandez) and young son, hidden in a pit to stay safe from the Mayans, but now trapped and facing starvation unless Jaguar Paw can return for them.

Gibson frames his quest as a journey into manhood, contrasting the vibrancy of Jaguar Paw's devotion with the gore-soaked decadence of his Mayan oppressors. I cannot speak to the historical accuracy of the images on-screen (judging by Gibson's work on Braveheart, it's probably quite a hash), but they feel authentic to a layman's eyes. The decision to use Mayan dialogue implies at least the pretense of authenticity, and the story itself holds a few modest twists and turns to keep things fresh. Unfortunately, it also indulges in some convenient happenstance to pull our hero out of the fire from time to time. Though couched in portents and omens, they lack the resonance to feel like the hand of destiny, suggesting instead that Jaguar Paw escapes his various dangers because the screenwriters painted themselves into a corner.

Then again, fortunate coincidence fits in well with the two-dimensional melodrama that marks the rest of the film. Jaguar Paw's Mayan adversaries are cruel and despicable, while his wife is silently noble, and his closest friend is rendered as a bumbling fool in order to ensure a proper alpha-dog pecking order. The characters engage us with the same sledgehammer strength as Gibson's visuals -- the lushness of the jungle contrasting with the decaying grandeur of the Mayan city and the ferociously pierced faces of hero and villain alike. It all carries with it a certain irresistible fascination, and as simplistic as it can often be, we wind up feeling for Jaguar Paw's dilemma. The highlights occur in the film's climax, when that old dynamic of terrain knowledge vs. superior numbers finds some gruesome yet reasonably clever payoffs.

"Gruesome," however, is the watchword for most of Apocalypto -- and in the end, its greatest failing. That harsh violence accompanies every scene isn't in itself a problem. It's the exquisite dedication Gibson applies to it. Splatty bits fly around with unseemly glee, drenching us in hacked limbs, spurting veins, and the delightful sound one makes when an arrow slams into your throat. Presumably, Gibson wishes to emphasize the harsh facts of life in such an environment, as well as the moral vacuum that precedes the Mayans' downfall (much the same way The Passion of the Christ stresses exactly what was meant by "He died for your sins"). But the sheer unspeakable brutality of it -- along with queasy images such as babies being punted around like footballs and very pregnant women falling from heights -- destroys any proper subtext under the weight of exploitative overkill.

Simply put, it's ugly to sit through, and while certain parts hold a throbbing appeal, their bleak straightforwardness never justifies the scarlet agonies enshrouding them. Another disquieting undercurrent pervades its overtly ethical story as well -- the sense of heathen barbarity ultimately cleansed by a judging God -- and some of the humor suggests a cruelty extending to the emotional realm as well as the physical. Gibson's dedication to his work is heartfelt, but will definitely incur some Madman Mel snickers, and the rest of Apocalypto never quite dissuades us of the notion. The film shatters its audience like a bull in a china shop, overwhelming us with sound and fury, and never bothering to clean up the mess. You're not likely to forget the experience, but one can't help but wonder who would want to go through it in the first place.

Review published 12.07.2006.

IMDb | buy it at Amazon.com

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