Gibson’s apocalyptic triumph

by Glen Baity

Right up front, let me assure you of my ineptitude as a lecturer on Mayan culture. A solid 99 percent of everything I know on the subject I learned from watching Apocalypto, so you would be rightly reluctant to accept a history of the Mayan people from your lowly film critic.

And given director Mel Gibson’s recent drunken escapades coupled with his persistent reticence on the subject of his Holocaust-denying father, you might be even more hesitant to accept a history lesson from the erstwhile lethal weapon.

But if moviegoers are willing to take that step, there’s one factor working decidedly in their favor: Apocalypto is probably Gibson’s greatest accomplishment to date, a relentless, awe-inspiring picture of a civilization on the brink that is easily one of the best movies of 2006.

The film chronicles the odyssey of Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood), a husband, son, father and hunter whose village is suddenly ransacked by a band of Holcane warriors. In a panic, he stows his young son and wife, who is carrying the couple’s second child, in a deep hole in the earth before he and his fellow tribesman are taken hostage and marched by the neck to a nearby city. The purpose of their captivity, they soon find out, is either slavery or sacrifice to the gods.

Jaguar Paw’s escape and frantic journey home make up the film’s second half. By that point, Gibson, who co-wrote the film with Farhad Safinia, has the hooks firmly in place. Like The Passion before it, Apocalypto is subtitled, unfolding entirely in the language spoken at the time. It’s one of the many elements that have the effect of pulling the viewer into this magnificent lost world.

The film’s human drama, while certainly effective, is well-worn territory for Gibson, who again subjects his protagonist to a world of torment. Jaguar Paw’s father, Flint Sky (Morris Birdyellowhead), is dispassionately executed by one of the invading horde; he sees friends impaled, beheaded and tossed off cliffs indiscriminately; and all the while he is plagued by worry for his very pregnant wife and their young family. All of this plays out through the hero’s conflict with the Holcane warriors, who are every bit as one-sidedly portrayed as the English in Braveheart. Indeed, at times Gibson seems positively allergic to any kind of moral ambiguity or depth of character, at least as far as his villains are concerned.

Speaking of Braveheart, there are other elements of that film present here that might have you hearing bagpipes in the rainforest, but the ensemble cast plays this material so well it’s hardly a detriment. Youngblood is amazing as Jaguar Paw, but he’s only one among many in this cast who invests everything in his role.

And it’s not just the players: The costumers, make-up artists and set designers deserve a round of statues for resurrecting an entire civilization with unrestrained conviction. The smallest detail has been accounted for, from the intricacies of Mayan architecture to the proper construction of a poison dart. The hard work of all involved shines through, but the greater effect is that Apocalypto views like an artfully woven tapestry.

Some viewers – and who can blame them? – will be turned off by Gibson’s still-present fixation with violence and torture. He lingers, often and at length, on open wounds, vacated chest cavities and pits of headless bodies in various states of decay. Say what you want about the guy, but few directors are committed to anything like Mel Gibson is committed to the nitty-gritty of pain and suffering. In Apocalypto he once again basks in the crimson glow and, as always, he makes sure the viewer is right there with him, for better or worse.

All the forgoing praise aside, I’m not sure Apocalypto doesn’t overstate its case somewhat. The film opens with a quote from historian Will Durant which posits that “a great civilization is conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”

Whether that was true of Mayan culture at the time chronicled in the move is a question for historians. But the film, focused as it is on Jaguar Paw and his ruined village, doesn’t offer the viewer any context for the state of larger Maya civilization. If anything, the characters seem disconnected from cultural goings-on in any literal way (though bad omens abound), making theirs an imperfect perspective through which to make the larger point Gibson clearly wants to make. Accordingly, things that happened before the film’s events are never mentioned, nor is what comes after.

While that’s certainly a flaw, it’s not fatal to this film, which asks the viewer to invest in character rather than historical perspective. That’s always an easy sell where I’m concerned, obstinate as I am in my belief that humanity should be at the forefront of every successful piece of historical fiction. Apocalypto is bursting with it, and consequently stands as Gibson’s most towering achievement in an ambitious directorial career.

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