Thirty-plus years of doing this column have given me quite a high tolerance for awful stuff, but Apocalypto nearly beat me. After an hour, it took sheer will power to keep me in my seat. Yes, most early reviews of the film have been positive, but not ecstatic, so perhaps the problem rests in the eye of the beholder. My aesthetic sense and Mel Gibson’s simply clash like pit bulls on speed. Be patient with a personal recollection that may explain a lot. During her more than 25 years as reviewer for America, the late Moira Walsh probably did more than anyone in the Catholic press to lead her readers beyond the Legion of Decency mentality by treating films as an art form for adults rather than a threat to children. Her column appeared almost weekly in these pages and often covered more than one new release. As she gradually neared the end of her tenure and eased into other interests, she commented to friends with a note of melancholy that she felt a growing alienation from the trends in the new films of the late 1960’s, like the violence of “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967), “The Wild Bunch” (1969) and “Easy Rider” (1969); the casual sexuality of “The Graduate” (1967) and “Midnight Cowboy” (1969); and of course the sheer noise of rock-and-roll soundtracks. She couldn’t do it any longer.
Reviewing fewer films at greater depth—or at least at greater length—seemed a wiser strategy for her successor. In any event, it has led to greater longevity for the reviewer. Although this column generally provides reflections on films that I believe adult readers like America’s will find interesting, occasionally a Hollywood blockbuster attracts enough attention in the popular press to warrant coverage as a cultural phenomenon. Such occasions—“Apocalypto,” to cite the pertinent example—have made me sympathize with Moira’s sad conclusion as not only reasonable but inevitable. Like her, I really can’t abide some films that other reviewers endorse and audiences support.
Those who found edification in Gibson’s sadomasochistic dance through the New Testament in “The Passion of the Christ” will probably find penetrating historical analysis in “Apocalypto.” Not me. I find his computer-enhanced delight in torture revolting at best and at worst simply infantile. He actually takes this claptrap seriously, as though he’s creating art, and obviously the box office proves he has his finger on a pulse, a very sick pulse, in the mass audience. When diabolic priests in Stephen Spielberg’s “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom” (1984) tear a beating heart out of a human sacrifice, the scene is played as a comic-book parody. Gibson tries to convince himself and his audiences that he is making serious drama out of such gory silliness. A 10-year-old, on the verge of outgrowing potty jokes and just starting to blow up galaxies and incinerate rival gangs on his computer, loves this stuff. A normal adult absorbs such images either with revulsion or occasional giggles at their absurdity. I don’t know which reaction is healthier.
Violence in itself is not the issue. Many filmmakers use graphic violence to enhance the horrible consequences of evil actions. The opening sequence of Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan” (1998) may have been one of the bloodiest ever filmed. Martin Scorsese’s latest film, “The Departed,” ends with a series of horrific assassinations. In these films, the bloodletting underlines the essential tragedy and potential redemption in human events. Violent death suggests horror, or waste, or the inevitable consequences of evil. Even when we celebrate the violent death of a villain, we take delight only in ending the terrible deeds he has done in the past or threatens to do in the future, not in spattering his brains all over the ceiling, like a frenzied Jackson Pollock in an abattoir.
Gibson’s violence is different. He enjoys cruelty for its own sake, like a child boasting to his friends about the dreadful things he will do to the schoolyard bully. Instead of imagination, Gibson uses expensive computer-generated gore. The victim can’t fight back, while his antagonist truly enjoys the grotesque suffering he imposes. He is Jesus chained to a pillar as he is scourged by the grinning Roman soldier with bad teeth. He is William Wallace being held down and disemboweled on a table in Gibson’s “Braveheart” (1995), to the delight of the king’s magistrates and the crowds. If one victim works well, several will be even better. How many Indians do we have to see eviscerated on an altar of sacrifice in “Apocalypto,” and how many of their heads do we need to see bouncing down the steps of the pyramid before we realize the priests are not the nice guys?
The bloodletting in “Apocalypto” begins as a game. The brave hunters of the Mayan village chase a terrified tapir into a particularly brutal gadget that leaves the impaled animal squealing until the hunters dispatch it with their spears and clubs. With gooey squishing and slurping on the soundtrack, the stout lads slice up their game and divvy up the organs as a special treat. To humanize these hunters, Gibson has them sink into a series of frat-house pranks, all built on the premise that one of their number has not been able to have children with his wife. The gags may be terribly funny to a prepubescent who is just beginning to discover what all the naughty bits of the body are all about, but I for one felt the embarrassment we’ve all experienced when a friend launches a joke that we know is going to die in midair.
Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) emerges as the central character. He joins in the guy-stuff, but deep down, he’s an up-and-coming leader. Providing a feast of tapir meat for his young son and exuberantly pregnant wife, he represents the model of family life. This idyllic equivalent of small-town America ends abruptly when a war party from a neighboring tribe sacks the town, and after a symphony of smashed skulls and slit throats, the marauders bind the survivors by the throat to bamboo poles and lead them off to slavery or ritual sacrifice. Before his capture, J.P. manages to hide his wife and son in a cistern, and promises to return for them. Didn’t Homer work this plot once before in The Odyssey?
The spectacle of the Mayan city almost made the rest of the film worth the effort. Slaves work the limestone quarries like extras from Fritz Lang’s “Metropolis” (1928) and the royal court matches early Cecil B. DeMille in debauchery. Just before having his heart used as silly putty and his head turned into a basketball, J.P. escapes, and despite being pierced clear through the abdomen by an arrow, runs through the woods for several days with little apparent loss of stamina.
The chase provides an anthology of scenes from earlier films. “The Naked Prey” (1966) provides the template of the resourceful hero’s being pursued by those who would, as one of J.P.’s enemies would cheerily put it, wear his skin and make him watch. Gibson borrows the perilous crossing of a mountain waterfall from “The Mission” (1986) and the shaman in ecstasy from “Black Robe” (1991). J.P. emerges from quicksand, reborn and coated in mud like Martin Sheen in “Apocalypse Now” (1979). But no, the movie is not altogether derivative. Showing a jaguar eat someone’s face appears to be original to Gibson.
Using the native languages with subtitles was certainly better than resorting to Hollywood’s customary “heap-big Injun” talk. The technique works well once the action sequences start, but it does make the introduction dreadfully tedious, since the gross dialogue (written by Gibson and Farhad Safinia) is even dumber when we have to read it. Dean Semler’s cinematography is breathtaking. When people aren’t dismembering one another, the location footage of the Central American forests can be quite delightful to look at.
As an action-adventure film “Apocalypto” keeps its contract for manic entertainment. Mel Gibson may want it to be more. He returns to his favorite theme of brutal repression of one people by outside aggressors. The hero may be destroyed, but as a true traditionalist, he must preserve his passion for his way of life. Death above accommodation, at all costs. In the final deus ex machina escape, Gibson shows the Spanish fleet off the coast. And so the hunter-becoming-the-hunted theme that he introduced in the first half hour ends the narrative. The Spanish, it is implied, will enslave the Mayans, much as the Mayans enslaved weaker tribes. I just wonder if those who enjoy this kind of thing would bother to stir their brain cells by thinking such thoughts. For Gibson fans, the jaguar facial might be more interesting.