MOVIES ARE, in their nature, violent. Every shot in every film begins with the director calling “action,” and more often than not — more often, certainly, than in real life — someone gets hit, stomped, blown away or otherwise seriously maimed. Very often he or she becomes irrefutably dead — except in comedies, of course, where the victim appears in the next scene comically bandaged or comically woozy.
Generally speaking, that’s OK with me. I’ve been a movie reviewer for something like 40 years, and I am inured to all the unpleasantness that takes place in this alternative universe that, for reasons beyond the purview of this article, I long ago embraced. I feel rather sorry for the infrequent moviegoer who drops in on a current release and discovers that the amount of blood being colorfully shed is excessive compared to, say, an Errol Flynn movie. Tastes (or should one say the audience’s endurance?) and movie technology (the ability to persuasively rub our noses in gore) have changed over the years.
That said, why is Mel Gibson’s “Apocalypto” so upsetting? Let’s set aside the director’s drunken anti-Semitic rant of last summer (if that is possible). Let’s also set aside the rank primitivism of “The Passion of the Christ” and its gazillion-dollar success (if that’s possible). Let’s simply concentrate on what Gibson is showing and telling in this particular movie.
This may be, tactically speaking, a mistake. I know the movie topped the box-office charts last weekend. But I suspect that in the end, “Apocalypto” will perform like your average horror movie — doing well with bloodthirsty adolescent males for three days, then dropping 50% or 60% the following week. Maybe we should just let it die its death. Generally, we do not comment extensively on road kill. We just avert our eyes and hurry on past it.
That’s especially so when the critical community has done its job, crying “Yuck” (in chorus) about this movie. I thought that was particularly true of Kenneth Turan, writing a follow-up piece in this newspaper in which he compared Gibson’s approach to that of Clint Eastwood in his two current releases, “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Letters From Iwo Jima,” both of which depict death and make us question its military necessity but do not linger on the agonies of the final moments of people we’ve come to admire in the course of the films. This is, one might say, old-fashioned moviemaking, and the two films are the better for Eastwood’s discretion. Or should we say his maturity?
What I would add to Turan’s — to nearly everyone’s — comments on “Apocalypto” is this: It is not so much the detail with which it treats violence that finally disgusts even the most hardened moviegoer; it is the ritualistic staging of it. Most reviewers have commented on the scene in which the Mayans stretch their victims across an altar and cut out their hearts and lift the still-throbbing organs to the skies. Gibson repeats this action and then sort of tops it by having the Mayans behead their prey and send their excised noggins bouncy-bouncy down their temple’s steps.
This is a standard Gibson trope. He loves to get people painfully restrained and then do really bad things to them — Turan mentions the actor’s drawing-and-quartering scene in “Braveheart” and the ghastly flogging of Jesus in “The Passion.” We are not, in these instances, dealing with mere “violence.” We are dealing with ritualized sadomasochism — an open manifestation of one of those dark fantasies that those in thrall to them must endlessly repeat and that have, of course, some sort of psychosexual component.
That’s why “Apocalypto” is so discomfiting. Ordinary movie violence generally happens on the fly, without an awful lot of calculation or consequence, though we can occasionally be instructed by it, as we were by “Hotel Rwanda” or the current “Blood Diamond.” But psychosexual violence of the kind Gibson is drawn to takes us to a truly ugly place. It is beyond the reach of the law, diplomacy, public policy or moral resolve. We can punish its practitioners only when fantasy turns into horrific, real-world acts. But we cannot cure them. They represent the irreducible, ineluctable evil of the world — the grimmest side of the social compact.
Gibson, of course, would argue otherwise. He believes that the blood of martyrs fertilizes good things like faith and freedom and that graphic depictions of their torments must strengthen our resolve in these matters. I say his slavering interest in the torture of the innocent and the idealistic is a form of pornography. I wouldn’t ban it. But, were it not for stern critical duty, I would shun it — because it is infantile. And because it tells me more than I want to know about the filmmaker’s mind, spirit and unspoken fantasies.