Who knows what violence lurks in the hearts of men? Mel Gibson knows, and he just can't resist putting every last ounce of it on screen. He also can't resist pulling those bloody, still-beating hearts out of human bodies and putting them up on screen as well. And that's just the beginning.
Numerous good things can be said about "Apocalypto," the director's foray into the decaying Mayan civilization of the early 1500s, but every last one of them is overshadowed by Gibson's well-established penchant for depictions of stupendous amounts of violence.
Despite a genuine talent for taking us to another time and place, a gift that under other circumstances would be worth experiencing, Gibson has made a movie that can be confidently recommended only to viewers who have a concentration camp commandant's tolerance for repugnant savagery.
Mountains of hacked up corpses, exit wounds spewing fountains of blood, spears shattering teeth, warriors literally beating each other's brains out, it's all here in living and dying color.
This is the kind of movie in which a person known as a finisher does not work on your floors, a jaguar graphically munches on a man's face, and when someone says, "I will peel his skin and have him watch me wear it," we can only pray that it doesn't come to pass.
Perhaps even Gibson himself doesn't know what deep need is satisfied by putting this kind of brutality on screen. But no one who's seen the disemboweling scene in "Braveheart" or the torture and crucifixion in "The Passion of the Christ" (not to mention the Gibson parody on "South Park") can doubt that need is there.
Given that penchant, it was only a matter of time until the director would find his way to a civilization that enthusiastically practiced human sacrifice. If ever there was a filmmaker congenitally unable to resist shots of severed heads bouncing, bouncing, bouncing down the side of a steep pyramid, this is the man.
In a Gibson-directed movie, it's usually not very long until someone sticks the knife in and does his worst, and "Apocalypto" is no different. It opens with a ferocious tapir hunt in a verdant jungle that ends with the animal impaled and eviscerated with its throat cut for good measure. Welcome to Mel's World of Fang and Claw.
The men in the hunting party, including tribal elder Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead) and his son Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), soon to be the film's protagonist, are weighed down with so many body and facial piercings, including what look to be nuts and bolts under the lower lip, that it would not be surprising to see True Value Hardware with a product placement credit.
These men are part of a small village living in peaceful serenity in all that jungle. (The Mexican rain forest of Catemaco location has been beautifully shot in high definition digital video by Dean Semler, an Oscar winner for "Dances With Wolves.") The first hint that the future will be less bucolic is an encounter with the fleeing people of another village. The look on their faces is enough to cause Flint Sky to give a pep talk to his son, telling him that fear is a disease that must be kept at bay at all costs.
That talk turns out to be especially timely, as early the next morning the ultrafierce Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo) leads a group of sneering, sadistic warriors from a more advanced civilization in a savage attack on the village. Women are raped, men die in grotesque ways, but, for reasons we can easily guess, the attackers are as interested in taking prisoners as in meeting Gibson's bloodshed quota.
After hiding his pregnant wife, Seven (Dalia Hernandez), and their small son in a deep hole, Jaguar Paw gets captured and taken on the long journey to Zero Wolf's city. Along the way he sees crop failure, drought and plague, all symptoms of a civilization in serious crisis.
It wouldn't be fair to detail all the trials the script by Gibson and Farhad Safinia puts Jaguar Paw through, though his exploits do make the sprinting in "Run Lola Run" look like a Sunday stroll. Attention must be paid, however, to the pains that have been taken to make the look and feel of this vividly imagined world both authentic and involving.
For one thing, Gibson has insisted that all his actors, most of whom are new to the screen, speak their dialogue in the primary Mayan language of Yucatec. The director also employed a movement teacher to ensure that everybody's body language would be convincingly primitive.
Equally impressive is the high quality work that has gone into the physically imposing Mayan buildings and pyramids (Tom Sanders is the production designer). Ditto for the convincingly otherworldly head-to-toe look of the urban Mayans themselves, who look like habitues of the "Star Wars" cantina crossed with extras in a Carmen Miranda musical.
Gibson unblushingly intends "Apocalypto" as a clarion call warning modern man to watch his step or risk following the Mayas into decline and near-extinction. To this end he opens the story with a famous quote from historian Will Durant about the fall of Rome: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within."
This is all well and good, but the reality of "Apocalypto" is that this film is in fact Exhibit A of the rot from within that Gibson is worried about. If our society is in moral peril, the amount of stomach-turning violence that we think is just fine to put on screen is by any sane measure a major aspect of that decline. Mel, no one in your entourage is going to tell you this, but you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem. A big part.
MPAA rating: R, for sequences of graphic violence and disturbing images. Running time: 2 hours, 8 minutes. In general release.