Here is a fine example of “apology culture”; I’m about to write an article about a Mel Gibson movie, and unless I want the average reader to think I’m misogynist, racist, or anti-Semitic, I have to open by addressing Gibson’s reputation outside of film.
You know what? I don’t care what people think. I’m not here to signal virtue. I’m going to discuss the Mel Gibson film Apocalypto based upon its own merits, which are considerable. Had Gibson never acted and spoke as he did, according to the police reports and gossip vultures, I’d be talking about an Oscar winner for Best Picture. Apocalypto is the kind of film John Boorman used to make. See it if you’re skeptical. If you have acquaintances who might look askance at you for enjoying the work of Mel Gibson, go elsewhere.
I saw Gibson’s Passion Of The Christ in the theater with my equally-heathen friend Ted, after we’d seen the South Park episode ridiculing it. Truthfully, I found the movie as baffling and gruesome as any other aspect of Biblical scripture. At one point, a soldier took out a whip made of razors, and I said to Ted, “this is gonna be tough on ol’ Jeezy.” It was very sad, because earlier in the film, they showed Jesus giving his mom a nice table he’d made, so seeing him slowly transformed into skinless Frank from Hellraiser was rather unpleasant. The single most confusing part of the experience was the hardcore Passion fandom; humble, church-going folk who were somehow enjoying a gorier movie than Freddy vs. Jason.
Gibson’s movies are easy to ridicule because his antics reduced him to an insane reprobate in the eyes of the world. Passion Of The Christ became that “snuff film” where they kill the shit out of Jesus, and thus Apocalypto is Gibson’s “Waterworld” in the Mayan jungle. This is how the media destroys you, to make their bosses look good for taking you down. Gibson’s movies were where I first took notice of a gaping disparity between what I saw on screen and what I read in reviews. There’s no virulent conspiracy involving Jews, in response to Gibson’s drunken rants; it’s Tinseltown. Anyone, given the opportunity, would use Gibson’s words against him for gain. Don’t be foolish. Jews hear Gibson’s anti-Semitic comments, feel badly, and react by forgetting about it. It’s unhealthy to focus energy on people who put you down, even in protest.
In any case, it’s my understanding that Gibson made some sort of atonement gesture, but you are free to have whatever opinion of him you wish. Pardon the hyperbolic comparison, but Malcolm X also changed his tune regarding Jews, and you talk about him all the time. Of course, Malcolm X was shot to pieces by creeps not long after, so I don’t know what the hell point I was trying to make here. Jesus Christ, can we just talk about Apocalypto?
Cast your mind back to the Mel Gibson of 1995, and Braveheart. Think of the flaws you forgave in that corny but well-above-average epic. That Herzogian passion for making films loaded with natural beauty and adventure; that’s the Mel Gibson we’re dealing with here. Listening to the DVD commentary for Apocalypto is like watching it with a favorite uncle. You can’t be that guy and a raving lunatic at the same time. A misunderstood man of many talents with plenty of gaffes and skeletons in the closet for competitors to abuse? Is that not easier to swallow?
Gibson’s presence here is solely behind the camera, excepting an Easter-egg frame inserted into the teaser trailer:
…Okay, maybe he is a raving lunatic. Thing is, you have to be. You can’t make a movie this good otherwise.
Gibson and his co-producer, writer Farhad Safinia, intended Apocalypto as an exploration of primal fears. I would say it succeeds in that; there is a depiction of a guy splitting his head on a rock after diving off a waterfall that makes my eyelids slam shut. The sights, the sound, the blood in the water… this is one of those movies that engenders unpredictable reactions in viewers. It uses minimal CGI, if any, and is profoundly effective.
People who charge this film as “racist” have not seen it. It indeed depicts the Mayan civilization: its end. It is set around 500 years ago, in pre-Columbian Yucatan and Guatemala. The protagonist tribe is the last holdout against an infestation of bloodthirsty religious nutjobs. If you look closely, the good guys are well-fed, have happy families, and they utilize all parts of the animals they hunt. The bad guys are nomadic, lean and fit, and they wear the bones of their enemies. And those that are in power are busy slaughtering “heretics”, before a cheering throng of zealots. If you look, I’d say you’d find a parallel to modern times, or two.
(While proofreading this article*, I was listening to hard drum and bass music, and I realized that if the intense and unrelenting action of Apocalypto was scored with it, some poor fucker’s heart would literally explode.)
(*Who am I kidding.)
The protagonist tribe of Meso-Americans is introduced as they hunt down a tapir, using a sophisticated spike trap. The pecking order of the tribesmen is established, as they trick the chubby guy into eating balls. Chubby has marital problems that are played for laughs before things turn grim. The patriarch, Flint Sky, at first seems like the noble warrior archetype, but then he tricks Chubby’s hot wife into chewing hot peppers and blowing Chubby, and the entire village laughs their collective asses off.
Earlier, after the hunt, the tribe encountered a different group, whom Flint Sky says are “sick with fear”. He tells his son Jaguar Paw not to become infected like they are. He’s already smart enough to know not to eat balls.
Jaguar Paw has a toddler named Turtles Run, and an extremely hot and very pregnant wife called Seven. These two do about 75% of the dramatic heavy lifting for this film, and it’s phenomenal. I repeatedly forgot Dalia Hernández was not actually pregnant, and it’s a surefire tension builder. We’ll get to that, however.
A brief aside about audiences and film effects. There is a scene where a storyteller spins a fable for the tribe, by firelight. I have watched this movie with more than one person who claimed the storyteller’s missing arm looked fake, and that the CGI could have been better.
There is no CGI. It’s a dude missing an arm. But, we see what we want to see. Just don’t call that an objective attitude. And don’t tell me Cloud Atlas is a good movie. It’s fucking terrible.
At dawn, while everyone slumbers after a night of celebration, Jaguar Paw has a nightmare, caused by barking dogs. He sees an absolutely terrifying vision of the “fear-sick” tribesman from before. Somehow remaining calm, Jaguar Paw asks the vision “what do you want?”
The vision replies:
The dogs are barking because the village is about to be raided by a hostile nomad tribe, led by Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo). Zero Wolf and his sadistic subordinate Middle Eye are the Megatron and Starscream of this film. You know what I mean. Hey, I didn’t make a “Zero Wolf/Nero Wolfe” joke. Give me some credit.
If you are even the slightest bit wimpy, the raid scene is your first real obstacle. Zero Wolf and company are merciless killers out of your worst nightmares. They descend upon the peaceful village like odorless poison gas. The first you see of Zero Wolf is the sets of human jawbones he wears as shoulder armor. Most of the bad guys aren’t named within the film; you come to know them based on their adornments and horrific scarifications.
The nomads burn the huts, and use Vaudevillian hooks to yank tribesmen out and capture them. The women are herded up to be raped, and infants are callously dangled by their legs. It’s an incredible, edge-of-your-seat sequence. Seven and Turtles Run take refuge in a pit cave, but Jaguar Paw is finally captured, and Flint Sky is killed in front of him by a resentful Middle Eye. I mean, it’s a raid. What did you expect, cake?
Actually, you’re not far off. If you watch Apocalypto with the commentary track on, as I’ve suggested, Gibson explains many of the film’s trickiest shots. For example, following the raid, as Jaguar Paw (now renamed “Almost” by Middle Eye, after almost killing him) and the survivors are being lashed to bamboo poles for transport, we see a hysterical child amongst the carnage, wailing.
Gibson’s warm whiskey-rasp intones on the commentary:
“Aww, poor little guy. He wants ice cream.”
To get the kid to cry on cue, they gave him some ice cream, and then took it away. Come on, some part of you found that charmingly scrappy.
Carla Hool is credited for the marvelous casting in Apocalypto. Every actor in the film has a compelling face, magnified by the incredible makeup. The lead, Rudy Youngblood, reminds me of Nameer El-Kadi from Quest For Fire (1981), with his expressive, pleading eyes. Similar to that film, there is no English, so the actors have to make their point visually. Don’t forget, there’s a prejudice against subtitled films, by viewers who “don’t like to read while watching a movie.” Those types will hurl every criticism in the book at a movie to cover up what is at heart a comprehension problem. Sorry, you know it’s true. (Quest For Fire has no subtitles, so again, I’m off-point.)
Something else I noticed about Apocalypto that you probably didn’t: unless I’m overlooking an exception, everyone in this film has brown eyes.
(Strap yourselves in, folks. This is a rough one.)
In our global quest for diversity and equality in all things, we overlook some basic truths, one being that brown eyes and blue or green eyes look different on film. I accept this as a brown-eyed person. Go back and skim my article about the movie Entertainment. Compare the screencaps of Gregg Turkington with the one of Amy Seimetz. You can light blue or green eyes to produce a thoughful, pensive visage. But brown eyes? WE LOOK LIKE WE HAVE HUGE, DILATED PUPILS.
If you never noticed this, I guarantee you have blue or green eyes. Look at any photo of Kubrick; he looks like a madman. Look at Werner Herzog; cool as ice, even when berserk. Think of all the biggest matinee idols; Paul Newman, Robert Redford, Warren Beatty, Richard Burton, Richard Chamberlain, Liz Taylor, Peter Fonda; what color were their eyes? Brown eyes were for love-struck women and crazies. All of this is based in color film development, and how we came to see other people.
Dark hair is harder to see on film; blond hair looks like spun gold, due to how it diffracts light. I’ve acted in plays and movies where I was made to apply more makeup than a street hussy; otherwise, I would not be properly visible. Once I had to bleach my hair blond, and the increase in pussy was simply astronomical. This is the way it is. Recessive traits are unique. There are better windmills to tilt at, Don Quixote.
And we’re back. You made it!
My point in this aside is, because of the brown-eyed cast, everyone in Apocalypto looks like they’re running on all cylinders, hearts pounding, at all times. It works like a fucking charm.
Zero Wolf has a son called Cut Rock, who got a nasty shiner in the raid. Zero Wolf cuts Rock like a boxing coach and sends him on his way. These hombres are tougher than a bag of wet wolverines.
As with Gibson’s Get The Gringo (not bad), Mexican actress Mayra Sérbulo appears, as a woman in the village who is captured. The arch, Spanish style of facial histrionics is perfectly suited here, as the children of the villagers follow the procession, orphaned.
The death march is excruciating. One of the best roles of the movie is Middle Eye, played by Gerardo Taracena. When one of the prisoners is dying of thirst, he shows how utterly sadistic he truly is, teasing him with water. He relishes killing and inflicting suffering. If there wasn’t a Gibson blackout, this dude would’ve gone on to the same infamy as Javier Bardem in No Country For Old Men; an unpredictable, unreasonable human time bomb.
(I have to point out also how much Gerardo Taracena reminds me of a muscled-out Scott Thompson from Kids In The Hall, circa 1990. If you see this movie, and you’re familiar with KITH, you’ll know exactly what I mean.)
Down in the pit cave, Turtles Run has a bleeding gash on his leg from when he and Seven fell in. Seven uses ants to close the wound, in a method that is historically accurate and legitimately depicted here, as far as I know. I don’t think the wound is real (it certainly appears so), but you can’t fake ant heads like that, even in CGI. Folks, I’m telling you, this is a man and a film working overtime to impress you. I can’t let that go unacknowledged.
There’s a captured tribesman that Gibson and crew nicknamed “Frank Sinatra”, because they claimed he looked like the legendary crooner. At first, I thought he was nuts again. But you know what? The more I looked at him, the more I saw it. He does look like Frank Sinatra! Somehow! It’s inexplicable!
The trek to the Mayan city seems endless, and there are many dangers on the way. A village has fallen to “the sickness”, and everyone is ordered not to touch the last survivor, a little girl who pleads for help over her mother’s dead body. A tribesman shoves her aside with a stick, and she delivers an impromptu fatalist prophecy in an otherworldly voice, smiling. As I noted, this film is unimpeachable in its casting. Gibson and Dean Semler, his director of photography, frame these amazing faces like fine art.
His detractors focus on the violence, which is appropriately considerable, and they completely overlook the rich palate of humanity he puts onto the screen. I find that unfair, and more than a little ignorant. Spike Lee considers Apocalypto one of the best films ever made, and he made 25th Hour, so I agree with him. I’d recommend this to any moviegoer that enjoys testing their limits through historical fiction.
This is also a long movie, and this pointless, meandering article is even longer, so I’m going to focus on the major scenes for the remainder. Gibson’s virtuoso performance in the director’s chair comes when Jaguar Paw and the other prisoners are led into the Mayan city, which is ruled by the rich, and teeming with paupers and religious fanatics of every imaginable stripe.
As a person who can barely stand walking through a crowded shopping mall, I tell you in all honesty, this scene is my Everest. My pulse sky-rockets when they enter the gates. I don’t know if I was a sacrifice in a former life, but I’ve had nightmares where I awoke screaming and covered in my own piss that were pudding pops compared to the step pyramid scene in Apocalypto.
There’s an emaciated man with the “laughing sickness”, begging for help (and laughing). This is a man dying of cancer who wanted to be in a movie. Rich palate of humanity, folks. It’s all up there on the screen.
At numerous locations in the outskirts, there are dudes standing motionless, head down, arms outstretched for some unknown reason. It’s some seriously creepy shit. No one pays them any mind, which only makes it worse.
Chanting women come out of nowhere and paint the prisoners blue with their hands. Oh, you know this is bad. How do the blue guys generally fare in old Mayan wall paintings?
Meanwhile, Chubby’s mother-in-law and the village woman are sold as slaves, but no one buys. Mother-in-law is set free to die alone. María Isabel Díaz, the actress, has phenomenal range, from comic business to pathos. Continuing with the theme of resemblance to divergent entertainers, she reminds me of the great Andrea Martin, of SCTV.
Yes, I’m stalling. This entire scene makes my balls climb into my stomach.
Outside the walls are the poor and dying; inside is where all the real weirdos are, to see the sacrifices. The rich people are carried above the throng, and they are covered in jade, which is simulated by painted and polished wood. The costuming goes off the charts. It’s astonishing to view.
Events I won’t spoil spare Jaguar Paw from the executioner’s blade, at the very last moment, and he is instead subjected to a death game at the hands of Zero Wolf and Middle Eye. This is the scene most people think of when they think of Apocalypto, and it was even lampooned on an episode of Eastbound & Down. The suspense pummels you, especially coming right after the trip up the death pyramid.
Against all odds, Jaguar Paw escapes, killing Cut Rock in the process. Zero Wolf holds his son as he dies, and when he gets up to give chase, the final act begins with him making the Terminator look like a mincing florist.
The final forty minutes of the film are non-stop action, as Zero Wolf relentlessly pursues Jaguar Paw on his way to save his wife and son. The primal-fear exploration kicks in full-steam, with mass graves, jaguars, quicksand, snakes, and the head-splitting episode I mentioned earlier. James Horner does just fine with the soundtrack, employing pipes, drums, and Pakistani vocalist Rahat Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan. It takes prominence where necessary, or fades back into jungle noise. I’d call it one of his best works, for certain.
Mel Gibson, the one you always loved, made a perfect film in 2006, just as Mike Judge did with Idiocracy. The 2hr 15m runtime flies by like whistling arrows. I chose to forgive Mel Gibson his trespasses based on this; whether you do the same is up to you.
But you can’t call Apocalypto anything short of perfect, if you love film.