Mel Gibson has proven himself a filmmaker of rare subtlety. No, it’s true. As Apocalypto proves, subtlety is rare in Gibson’s films. And nowadays, that’s probably the least troubling thing about him, so let’s try to enjoy it.
Gibson’s ascendance as a star and director has been driven by inherently unsubtle, increasingly spectacular displays of adrenalized sadism; he’s strong on the adventures of wronged heroes seeking retribution. This one introduces newcomer Rudy Youngblood as Jaguar Paw, a likable, rain-forest-dwelling family man of pre-Colombian Mexico who enjoys hunting tapir, hazing the schlubbiest of his fellow tribesmen and contemplating sage life lessons from his stately father. In modern frat-boy parlance, you might call ol’ J.P. “a good guy.” Just don’t go attacking his village. You mess with his family, you’re asking for trouble.
Sure enough, some marauders arrive to get things going. Jaguar Paw manages to stash away his pregnant wife and young son, but can’t avoid being severely beaten, shackled to his neighbors and herded off to a Mayan city where they’ll all be queued up for human sacrifice. Gibson deftly delineates his noble savages from the ignoble ones: The latter tend to favor a more aggressive tattooing scheme, sharper bones through their noses and helpfully movie-villainish dispositions of calm monstrosity. They inflict much suffering over the course of a long journey to the grand pyramid, atop of which a high priest appeals to the heavens for better weather by pulling out people’s hearts and hacking off their heads.
A kind of divine intervention does come for Jaguar Paw, though, because—well, because he’s the hero, so you know he’ll be OK. Not that the guy has everything handed to him. Dodging the ceremonial knife only earns his admission to the movie’s second and better half, a mad dash back through the jungle, pursued by his incensed, blood-lusting former captors.
Gibson’s surety with the material, co-written by him and Farhad Safinia, registers as both an asset and a liability. The action of the chase tends to be unrelenting, save for the occasional pause to indulge cinematographer Dean Semler’s showoffy crane shots (even the bad guys are compelled to deference by having their pursuit downshifted into slow motion). Characterization is essentially an intuition for the arrangement of compelling faces, blunt but well controlled: Youngblood’s soulful eyes, in particular, give us all the bearing on him that we’ll need, even making his character’s rather resourceful self-defense and eventual retribution seem less hackneyed than it is. Most action-flick folk wisdom is about as trustworthy as the idea that Maya’s contribution to human civilization over roughly four millennia consisted mostly of rustic jewelry and brutality. But Apocalypto is assertive with its demand for suspended disbelief. Clearly Gibson has some powerful, elemental moviemaking stuff going on.
Now, it’s silly for a director of such finely honed adolescent impulses to keep pretending maturity, but who’s the millionaire here, eh? Apocalypto begins with a line from the Jesuit-educated philosopher and Story of Civilization author Will Durant: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.” So here’s your chance to label Gibson a conquistador apologist.
Really, though, he doesn’t have the political imagination for that. (Conquistadors do make an appearance here, and a significant one, but it boils down to a cameo.) “We’re savages too, you know,” seems to be the message, as if you could mitigate an ingrained racist condescension toward 16th-century Mesoamerica with quick-learned voguish condescension toward modern America. It’s not ignorance exactly—Gibson’s attention to detail, or at least his crew’s, is resolute to the point of fetishizing. The costumes and sets are magnificent and specific; the Yucatec Maya language is authentic and consistent. But Gibson doesn’t intend the details to add up to any deep understanding. He just wants to lend a little gravity to the blood-soaked bathos of a workmanlike, chase-based thriller. He wants exotic, unprecedented spectacle—but with clear, contemporary selling points.
Maybe we all are and always will be vulgarians. But to go through this movie without a quickened pulse would be truly inhuman. Gibson has earned an impressive fluency with direct, silent-epic syntax. How you like his latest yarn will probably depend on whether or not you think that’s a dead language.