“Apocalypto” is a crazy film. It is the work of a crazy person, a raving lunatic whose name is Mel Gibson. Even without his Jew-bashing escapades earlier this year — and honestly, is it possible to TOTALLY disregard that when viewing his work now? — Gibson’s latest would still seem bizarre, almost unique in its mixture of over-the-top bloodletting, ambitious storytelling, and lowbrow slapstick humor.
Slapstick humor? In an action-oriented tale of survival in 15th-century America? How does THAT fit? Well, it doesn’t, really, but that’s part of Gibson’s fascinatingly insane mentality. Gibson likes Three Stooges buffoonery and bawdy sex jokes, and thus so do the Mayans in his movie.
Mel is fond of the violence, too, as his two most recent directorial works — “Braveheart” and “The Passion of the Christ” — have amply demonstrated. Not just violence, either, but torturous, graphic violence, performed by malicious villains who want to see their victims suffer. “Apocalypto” is chockablock with such mayhem, though Gibson is occasionally restrained in the way he shows it, often cutting away rather than depicting it unflinchingly. Still, though: plenty of violence. Make no mistake. In one laughably crude shot, we see things from the point of view of a head that has just been severed and is bouncing away.
Performed in the Mayan tongue (with English subtitles) by mostly non-professional actors, the story’s hero is Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a young husband and hunter whose wife (Dalia Hernandez) is pregnant with their second child. When their village is ravaged by another tribe, Jaguar Paw hides the missus and their son in a pit and rejoins the fight, only to be captured with his fellow men and dragged back to the opposing tribe’s compound of temples and pyramids, where ritual sacrifices are on the agenda.
The second half of the film has sparse dialogue and focuses on a “Most Dangerous Game”-style hunt through the forest, with Jaguar Paw attempting single-handedly to defeat his enemies and save his family like a pre-Columbian Rambo. These scenes are thrillingly shot, just as the temple sequence is nightmarish and gory, and the ravage of the village is intense and unsettling. No question, it’s an entertaining motion picture, an expensive production with cheap sensibilities (more violence = more fun) that manages to be both artsy-fartsy and just fartsy.
So what’s the point? Who knows. There are hints of parallels to modern times, vague suggestions of things that might have caused the Mayan decline, and some strange sexual metaphors in the playful early scenes involving one of Jaguar Paw’s hapless tribesmen. The violence is repellant, and it’s hard not to become disgusted with Gibson’s arrogance and megalomania: It’s his money, and he’ll by-gum make this historical epic as vulgar and whacked-out as he wants. I say let him. It’s fascinating to see what a millionaire does with his money when he doesn’t care what people think anymore.
B (2 hrs., 16 min.; in Maya with subtitles; )