As a filmmaker, Mel Gibson has guts, and he also loves to spill them. Like Braveheart and The Passion of the Christ, Apocalypto is a commercially risky film, as well as a bloody one. In Gibson’s signature style, it revels in grisly primitive carnage: battered bodies, slit throats, severed heads, ritual human sacrifice, ferocious animal attacks — you name the body part, and you’re likely to see it torn apart. Yet Gibson’s bloodlust cannot be easily dismissed. For not only is he an enormously talented filmmaker, he is also one of genuine conviction. And so we have Apocalypto, a stunning action epic, a gory personal indulgence, and a forthright defense of family, tradition, and local community against the decadence of urban modernity. It is a journey into an ancient foreign land filled with exoticism and excitement, but it is also a visit to the haunted, occasionally disturbing, yet undeniably compelling cinematic world of Mel Gibson.
Even before he drank and cursed his way into his unfortunate current public perception, Gibson spent a long time courting the role of unhinged, retributive loner. As an actor, he first gained notice in the post-apocalyptic Mad Max series playing a vigilante ex-cop whose family had been murdered. He became a star in Lethal Weapon with a turn as another cop, this one a half-crazed, suicidal alcoholic who had lost his wife. In his directorial debut, The Man Without a Face, he cast himself as a disfigured, melancholy recluse of ill-repute. Armchair psychoanalysts cannot know Gibson the man, but his artistic legacy is replete with mania, personal loss, and acute physical suffering, as well as an intense, unrequited longing for family and community.
Apocalypto takes all of these themes and packs them into a swift, streamlined chase scenario. There’s really very little to it: The first half of the film, in which a group of gentle villagers are taken prisoner and marched toward ritual sacrifice, is the setup. The second half, in which one of the villagers escapes and takes revenge on his captors, brings the payoff.
It starts simply enough. The camera creeps along the ground, peering into the underbrush of what seems to be a peaceful forest. A flash of motion signals that something might be amiss, and then, quite suddenly, a terrified animal bursts forth and is hunted down. This single shot provides a template for rest of the film: the appearance of tranquility, an eerie warning, an outburst, and then a chase.
We follow the hunting party back to their village. They and their fellow villagers are a hearty, jocular bunch, and Gibson takes pains to familiarize them for his contemporary Western audience. The hunting party behaves like a troop of modern fishing buddies: They boast about their families, worry over their natural surroundings, and rib each other ceaselessly, and rather profanely, on the walk back home. Gibson envisions their tiny, familial community as a tree-lined locker room, a close-knit open air society bound by history, tradition, and bawdy scatological humor.
But Gibson’s cruel streak doesn’t let this peaceful community go unmolested for long. After introducing these kind souls, he calls in a horde of surly raiders from a nearby city who are on the hunt for sacrificial fodder. They invade the village, take captives for sacrifice, and generally engage in all manner of fiendish, nasty behavior.
For Gibson, though, mere evil will not suffice; the villains in Apocalypto are icons of unadulterated malevolence, a band of leering, brutal hedonists decked out in tribal S&M-wear like an ancient biker gang. They sport elaborately tattooed faces and pierce their noses with twisted spikes of bone. Their commander, a merciless manager-type who approaches wholesale slaughter as a business and little more, wears a helmet made from a skull and armor built from square-shaped skeletal chippings marked with black Xs, as if someone had been playing a very one-sided game of tic-tac-toe on him. His chief underling is a smirking sadist who delights in the suffering and death of others.
These characters are repulsive, yet also compelling. By crafting creatures of such towering villainy, Gibson is giving permission — even encouraging — his audience to unleash their hate, their desire for blood-spattered vengeance. And unlike Clint Eastwood, Steven Spielberg or many other postmodern, revisionist filmmakers so concerned with moral ambiguity, Gibson refuses to make his audience feel guilty for wanting justice. He has no interest in nuanced moral quandaries; great evil abounds, and it must be stamped out — no matter the cost.
The final section might have been titled Revenge of the Loincloths. Believing his wife and child to still be alive, one of the captured villagers escapes, is chased by the raiders, and, one by one, takes down his pursuers. For an hour, Gibson proves himself peerless amongst action filmmakers. It’s intense, relentless, gasp-inducing — a visceral rush of such pulse-pounding urgency that watching it could substitute for a workout.
But Apocalypto is more than a high-velocity Hollywood adrenalin rush. It’s also, arguably, the ultimate reactionary movie, a savage rebellion against modernity that holds up technology and urbanity as poisonous to society. After warming his audience to the good-natured rural villagers, Gibson reverses this trick and paints their urban counterparts as ghoulish and decadent, almost inhuman. The captives’ journey into the city is filled with nightmarish sights — slave markets, sickly children, chalk covered laborers in a stone quarry looking like hollow-eyed ghosts — and capped off with a terrifying scene of ritual human sacrifice. Gibson films it all like an ancient macabre freak show, implicating the sin-filled city, with its suffering masses, devious leaders and enslaving inventions, in the desecration of the simple agrarian life he presents at the beginning.
The film sees modernity as an affront not only to man, but to nature, and it too has its revenge. In the second half of the film, the forest comes alive, and its beasts lash out against the urban invaders (though never against the protagonist). Like the villagers, these creatures are defending their homes and lives against marauding outsiders — and, of course, adding to the gory spectacle. This is a movie that fights bloody tooth by bloody nail for peaceful, traditionalist values. It’s like a Crunchy Con-produced splatter film.
This jarring contrast almost requires one to ask: Is Gibson’s home-and-family mantra merely an excuse to indulge his bloodlust? Possibly. Or it may simply be that the film reflects, in a variety of ways, the paradoxes and inner turmoil of its creator. Apocalypto simultaneously celebrates both man’s peaceful, communal side and his most primal, violent instincts. And it is a willfully odd movie, a blood-soaked foreign-language period piece with no obvious reference point for its Western audience. Yet it is also a razzle-dazzle Hollywood action epic of the first order. In the end, as with Braveheart, that may be its ultimate strength: to captivate, to thrill, to stir one’s passions.
Gibson’s films can be knotty to untangle, but their basic, crowd-rousing aims are often as primitive as a wooden club to the skull — and just as effective. For Gibson, the way to a man’s heart is straight through his ribcage.