Monday, January 01, 2007

Review - Apocalypto

It has been a strange couple of years for Mel Gibson. Not too long ago he was known mainly as a reliable leading man and an Oscar-winning director, but now he seems to have reinvented himself as a professional controversy magnet, a man whose every action is guaranteed to grab headlines. The main catalyst for this shift in Gibson’s public persona was his 2004 film The Passion of the Christ, an Aramaic-language depiction of Jesus’ final hours which drew criticism for its extreme levels of violence and anti-Semitic undertones. That second accusation gained even more substance earlier this year when Gibson’s drunken rant at police officers appeared to make his prejudices clear in no uncertain terms. All of this has rather overshadowed the fact that Mel Gibson’s latest film as a director is one of the more interesting - if frustrating- American offerings of the year.

So what are we to make of Mel’s Apocalypto now? Well, it’s certainly a far better film than his awful The Passion of the Christ, and thankfully the director’s prejudices are a little less prevalent this time around (one unfortunate lapse into Holocaust imagery aside). But it’s another, equally troubling aspect of Gibson’s personality which casts its shadow over this film and ultimately proves damaging to the whole project, and that’s the director’s seemingly insatiable bloodlust.

Does any director depict cinematic violence with quite as much relish as Mel Gibson? After The Passion of the Christ one would have thought Gibson would have had enough of the red stuff for a while, but instead he seems determined to ramp it up to 11. Apocalypto contains all manner of beheadings, throat-slittings, stabbings and impalements; and Gibson finds ever more creative ways to make his audience flinch. If you’ve ever wondered what a Jaguar tearing a man’s face off would look like, then here it is in all its glory. If you like the idea of one man pulling the heart out of another’s chest while it’s still beating, Gibson shows it again and again. If you’ve ever wanted to see a pregnant woman beat a monkey to death (and really, who hasn’t?), then Apocalypto is the film for you.

The relentlessly brutal nature of the violence is initially off-putting, then numbing, and finally rather comical, with a blood-spurting head wound provoking some laughter at the screening I attended. There’s nothing wrong with a filmmaker showing us the savage acts which these people undeniably indulged in, but you need balance, you need occasional flashes of subtlety to offset the overall bluntness, and Gibson never knows when enough is enough. Subtlety, sensitivity and grace are directorial tools which Gibson doesn’t seem to have access to, and his no-nonsense style grows wearying as the body count escalates. His unwavering concentration on the various ways human flesh can be mutilated undermines the laudable ambitions of Apocalypto, and that’s a real shame, because there’s a great movie in here somewhere.
Apocalypto is ostensibly the story of the decline and fall of the Mayan civilisation some time in the early 16th century, and it revolves around a man named Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood). He has a beautiful wife (Dalia Hernandez), who is pregnant with their second child, and life appears to be pretty good in the small village which he calls home. There are regular hunts - the film opens with a breathless chase through the jungle which ends with the slaughter of a tapir - and a lot of genital-based humour at the expense of his friend Blunted (Jonathan Brewer) who is having trouble conceiving a child, much to the chagrin of his wife’s cranky mother (cock jokes and mother-in-law jokes clearly tickle Gibson’s funny bone).

But the good times can’t last, and Jaguar Paw already feels a sense of unease after meeting survivors of a nearby village which was ravaged by some unknown assailants. A few nights later, his own village comes under attack from a group of savage Mayans - scarily clad in various masks, bones and tattoos - and Jaguar Paw just about has time to hide his wife and child down a nearby well before he is caught and led away with a number of other captives to a seemingly inevitable death.
This is where Apocalypto begins to get interesting. The journey which the terrified prisoners are led on, across raging waters and precarious mountain paths, is spectacularly depicted, and the brilliance of Apocalypto’s production design, makeup and casting makes this film feel like an unnervingly accurate recreation of the Mayans’ world. The hundreds of extras display intricate body art and have various bone piercings adorning their faces; and as in The Passion, Gibson has his cast speaking in a dead dialect - Yucatec Maya this time - with the mostly inexperienced leading cast giving guileless, authentic performances. The digital cinematography throws up some beautiful images (even if it does seem oddly flat sometimes) and James Horner adds a brilliant, moody score which plays a considerable part in the film’s partial success. Like Terrence Malick’s recent masterpiece The New World, this truly is an astonishing and evocative realisation of a particular time and place.

Eventually, the terrified Mayans are led to the city where the women are auctioned off and the men are painted blue in preparation for their sacrifice. They are led to the top of an enormous temple, and as they climb the stairs they can see a steady stream of decapitated heads plummeting down the other side. The High Priest is there, ready to spill blood in an attempt to appease their gods, and he begins pulling the hearts out of the prisoners’ bodies before their heads are removed and thrown towards the growing pile below. Jaguar Paw is on the altar, seconds from death, when the Priest’s hand is stayed by a solar eclipse (one of the script’s many uses of deus ex machina) and, with the sun god satisfied, the rest of the prisoners are dismissed, ready to be disposed of elsewhere. The prisoners are used for target practice in a secluded spot behind the temple, but Jaguar Paw manages to escape from his captors’ clutches, and he races into the jungle with an angry group of savages on his tail.
Apocalypto then becomes a chase movie and, unfortunately, that’s pretty much all the second half of the movie amounts to. It’s as if Gibson’s ambitions gradually shrink the further the film progresses, and after the far-reaching splendour of the first half, we’re left with just one long pursuit through endless undergrowth as the film’s climactic act. That’s not to say it isn’t exciting; Gibson effectively manages to build up a compelling sense of tension in many places, and the movie often develops a thrilling kinetic rush as Jaguar Paw hurtles through the trees, encountering a real jaguar, a waterfall and quicksand among the film’s bewildering number of cliff-hangers. But the chase gets repetitive, frequently stretching plausibility, and the climax Gibson offers at the end of it all is weak.

“A great civilisation is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within” is the Will Durant quote which Gibson uses to open the film, and it’s a quote which could be seen as offering some sort of cautionary moral to this story of a decadent society brought to its knees, but it could also act as a metaphor for the film as a whole. Apocalypto destroys itself through Gibson’s inability, or unwillingness, to widen his focus beyond man’s capacity for violence; he recreates a whole world in breathtaking detail, but then he retreats into the jungle, preferring to subject us to a few more scenes of bloodshed and pain. Apocalypto squanders its grand potential somewhere in that dense jungle, and it ultimately tells us a lot more about Mel Gibson than it does about Mayan civilisation.