The general tenor of Apocalypto’s critical response runs like this: Mel Gibson may be a jerk, but at least he’s a damn good director. I think his reputation as a damn good director will outlast his reputation as a jerk, since the former is based on a string of daring, visionary films that will last as long as celluloid, while the latter is based on a few minutes of drunken outburst.
Jerk or Genius, it seems impossible to separate Mel the man from Mel the moviemaker. Though many literary scholars privilege "text" over the author thereof, the pop-culturally-inclined have difficulty maintaining such Olympian detachment. The Cult of Personality that fuels the ratings of second-hand "entertainment television" like the E! channel loves to bind the fate of a film to that of the filmmaker. (Can’t spell "culture" without "cult," right?)
Yet Gibson himself seems to invite the association: his name appears above the title in the possessive case ("Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto"). His off-screen antics are a double-edged sword, however, generating publicity for his latest film while threatening to overshadow the film itself. The fact that his movie debuted atop the box-office its opening weekend, with its unknown star Rudy Youngblood besting competition that included Leonardo DiCaprio, Cameron Diaz, Jack Black, Jude Law, and Kate Winslet, has less to do, I think, with the public’s general absolution of Gibson’s sins than it does with its trust in him to deliver the goods when he’s safely ensconced behind the camera.
Let’s get something straight: ‘Mad Mel’ is clearly fascinated by sheer, unmitigated brutality.
Number one hit notwithstanding, would any Hollywood studio have voluntarily produced this film without Gibson’s name attached? And if not, why not, one might ask?
Apocalypto does, after all, conform to the standard Hollywood plotline: likable hero on a difficult quest against seemingly insurmountable odds. (As it happens, that description also fits The Odyssey, Beowulf, Lord of the Rings, and a sizable chunk of the world’s mythologies.) It's the now-familiar Joseph Campbell Hero Myth, explicated in Campbell's groundbreaking book, much studied in Hollywood, Hero with a Thousand Faces. But Hero Myth or not, does anyone seriously think any major Hollywood studio would have funded a graphically violent movie set in sixteenth century Mesoamerica starring unknown, indigenous actors speaking an ancient Mayan dialect?
The answer, of course, is "No." After all, who’s ever seen a big-budget, Hollywood Cowboys & Indians movie without the Cowboys?
Well, Gibson has finally given us one. He is among the handful of truly exciting filmmakers working today, and for two reasons: One, he’s a visual genius dedicated to the purity of virtually silent cinema. As a cinema stylist, Gibson is on par with Peter Weir, Wong Kar Wai and Terrence Malick, and his Apocalypto is another example of his ability to transport the audience to a distant time and place while maintaining an arresting sense of immediacy.
Reason number two, and perhaps the more important, is that Gibson is an uncompromising artist of independent means. No small thing, that. Even vaunted directors like Martin Scorsese and Spike Lee have to scratch and claw to get funding for their personal movies, often acting as hired-guns on studio projects to gain the moneymaking cachet studio executives require before opening the purse. (Scorsese with Cape Fear, for example, or Lee with Inside Man.)
I’m mystified by the hypocrisy of film critics who dismiss Gibson as a ‘serious filmmaker’ because of his graphic depiction of human cruelty.
Gibson, on the other hand, is a millionaire many times over, especially after Passion. He can afford to write himself a blank check on any story that strikes his fancy—and the stories that strike his fancy seem to fly in the face of conventional Hollywood wisdom. He puts his money where his mouth is just as often as he puts his foot in it. With the means to match his ambition, Gibson’s films are at once epic and intimate, strange and familiar. Not to mention all the more head-scratchingly bizarre for how well they work in light of how misguided they seem to the rest of us when still in development.
Gibson's last two movies have shared lunatic premises no other filmmaker would have dared attempt. First came his ultraviolent, R-rated, Caravaggio-like meditation on Christ’s Passion, featuring a cast of relative unknowns speaking Aramaic and Latin. When Gibson’s plan for The Passion of the Christ was announced, industry prognosticators predicted the end of Gibson's career. I know I shook my head, wondering if the one-time Mad Max and trigger-happy Lethal Weapon had gone off the deep end. (Proves what I know.) Since its release, the passionate work of devotional art has earned in the neighborhood of a billion dollars worldwide.
As legendary screenwriter William Goldman once said of Hollywood, "Nobody knows anything."
Gibson has chosen to follow up his blindsiding blockbuster with Apocalypto, an equally off-the-wall project—an ultraviolent, R-rated action movie set during the waning days of the Mayan civilization, featuring unknown Native American, Mexican and Latin-American actors speaking an ancient Mayan dialect.
Once again, the guy is either a glutton for punishment or a man-on-a-mission. Or just plain nuts? ("Maybe I am," he once memorably said, "but maybe I’m a genius.")
Whether you paint him lunatic visionary, industry-savvy reactionary, surefire craftsman, or crazy drunk…something’s working, because the only thing crazier than the outlandish conceits of his movies is how effectively he pulls them off. Even art-house kings David Cronenberg and David Lynch couldn't claim to make more personal or idiosyncratic films than Mel Gibson. In scope and vision, Apocalypto is as much a madman’s epic pet project as Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo. another auteur’s "misguided" venture, con camera crew, deep into the Heart of Darkness.
The pre-release brouhaha surrounding Apocalypto was mostly about Mel’s drunken anti-Semitic tirade to a Malibu police officer in late July. But whether Gibson is or is not a raging anti-Semite has little bearing on a film with nary a Jew or Christian in sight. The unavoidable fact remains that whatever the man’s personal demons, he’s managed to channel them into making technically breathtaking feats of cinematic derring-do. Critics looking for something beyond ad hominem attacks have had to come up with other tactics.
Gibson’s films are at once epic and intimate, strange and familiar.
For the most part, the post-release reaction from critics has been positive. Rolling Stone praised Apocalypto’s "blunt provocation and bruising beauty," and the Boston Globe cited how "it immerses you fully in its harsh, luxuriant world." But for some critics, the film’s flashpoint has been—heard this one before?—its "exploitative" violence. "An exercise in sadism," claimed an otherwise enthusiastic Houston-Chronicle reviewer. "I have had it up to here with his ungodly fondness for bloodletting." The Denver Post opined: "The Passion of the Christ was a religious snuff film, and Apocalypto is an anthropological snuff film." J. Hoberman of the Village Voice decried Apocalypto as "pure, amoral sensationalism," prompting me to wonder when the Voice started taking the morality of a film into critical consideration (a refreshing change-of-pace, actually).
Let’s get something straight: "Mad Mel" is clearly fascinated by brutality on both a visceral and metaphysical level. Not just violence, either—Road Runner cartoons are violent—but sheer, unmitigated brutality. Every imaginable kind of physical horror is on display in Apocalypto: decapitation, mutilation, evisceration, animal mawling, clubbing, snake bites, you name it (there’s my laundry list). One scene involving an angry mama jaguar and a man’s face actually did tip over, in my mind, into splatter-movie gruesomeness. Weak-stomached viewers should be forewarned.
That said, I’m mystified by the hypocrisy of film critics who dismiss Gibson as a "serious filmmaker" because of his graphic depiction of human cruelty. Until Apocalypto came out, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed was unquestionably the most violent film of the year, along with one of the most critically acclaimed. But according to the venerable New York Times, "Violence has become the central axiom in Mr. Gibson’s practice as a filmmaker, his major theme and also his chief aesthetic interest." A.O. Scott makes this declaration from his pedestal as though the same could not as easily be said of critical darlings Scorsese, Sam Peckinpah, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, John Woo, and Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather trilogy. Our world is saturated in violence, gore, and unspeakable horrors. If the beheadings in Apocalypto seem shocking, you haven’t been watching the nightly news.
I suspect Mel’s violence is reprehensible to some critics because it's a means to a specific thematic end—Gibson's deeply moral view of the universe. The viewer is meant to be appalled. How odd, then, that a gangster putting a cardshark’s head in a vice until his eyes pop out in Casino is "unblinking realism" if Scorsese is at the helm. Bruce Willis ripping the testicles off the "Yellow Bastard" in Sin City is all in good fun if it's Rodriguez shooting the savagery. Yet somehow Roman soldiers whipping an innocent man until the stones run red beneath him is "bloodlust" when it's Gibson behind the camera.
There’s nothing more mythic than a man racing on foot through a jungle to save his pregnant wife and firstborn child from near-certain death.
Critics harp on violence as the thread running through Gibson's oeuvre; but neglecting, for a moment, his warm-up exercise, The Man Without a Face, there's another steady, recurring theme that connects Gibson’s trilogy of Braveheart, The Passion, and Apocalypto: in each film Gibson examines a small, oppressed community that is forced to defend home and hearth against the merciless depredations of a militaristic empire.
Consider the ragged band of Scottish "warrior-poets" pitted against the vast and powerful English forces in Braveheart. Consider Christ, humanity’s sacrificial lamb, killed in the manner calculated by the inventive Romans to inflict the maximum amount of pain and humiliation on the human person. Finally, consider Jaguar Paw, played by photogenic newcomer Rudy Youngblood, as a family man from a tight-knit tribe, brutally enslaved by mercenary manhunters on the payroll of the Mayan capital. Before Jaguar Paw’s capture, he manages to hide his pregnant wife and child from the marauders in a deep cave, promising to return.
Jaguar Paw’s imprisonment takes him from the simple quietude of his village to the massive Mayan epicenter, an overwhelming, cacophonous, chaotic cityscape of pyramids, tunnels, teeming crowds, and overheated marketplaces where people are sold like cattle. Contrasting the warmth and benevolence of Jaguar Paw's village with the impersonal debauchery of the city-state, Gibson sets up a clear dichotomy in the form of a simple question: which should a culture value, Life or Death, people or Power?
Fellini couldn’t have fashioned a more outrageously surreal sequence than a bewildered Jaguar Paw’s entrance into the Mayan capital, followed by an orgy of bloodthirsty ritual. It is in these fever-dream scenes that Gibson’s Culture of Life versus Culture of Death theme comes into focus. The life-giving love of family, fireside, and kin that defined the film’s first act gives way to the dispassionate dispatching of sacrificial victims by priest-kings-slayers determined to keep a firm grip on a suffering populace, growing unruly in the wake of fears of famine and an unforgiving cosmos.
The analogy to other empires, all empires—Roman, Aztec, the Third Reich, and (let’s not mince words) modern-day America—is obvious, or at least obvious to the filmmaker. As St. Mother Teresa pointedly and perhaps prophetically observed, a culture that kills its unborn is on the road to war and possibly nuclear holocaust. Gibson hammers home the idea that when a culture chooses Death as a means to preserve power, it sets in motion a machinery of dehumanization that will not stand the test of time. Ah, yes, "pure, amoral sensationalism," that.
Which brings us back to the violence. Gibson chooses to express fallen human nature through our shared discovery of endlessly creative ways to destroy each other. In Apocalypto, ritualistic human sacrifice serves as Gibson’s chief metaphor for humanity at its most depraved and decadent. The way Gibson uses violence is almost didactically moral, the visual equivalent of Tennyson’s proverbial, "nature, red in tooth and claw," only the nature under scrutiny here is human nature. The Mayan capital he depicts is a Boschian vision of a once-mighty culture with the brakes off, careening towards extinction.
The analogy to other empires—Roman, Aztec, the Third Reich, and (let’s not mince words) modern-day America—is obvious.
Set in opposition to the inhuman cruelty of the Empire, is Jaguar Paw, Apocalypto’s Energizer Bunny protagonist. The Christ overtones are subtle, gradually coming into focus as the film unfolds. The comparison lies in the willingness to suffer for love, in the spiritual purity that arrives via suffering. Jaguar Paw’s journey through the jungle is his Way of the Cross, as he endures countless torments in an effort to rescue his family. Not so subtly, he even receives a spear wound through his right side. Through Jaguar Paw and his plight, Gibson suggests that the Gospel themes of suffering, redemption, and love are perennial; not limited to the Judeo-Christian West.
This is a lot of weighty thematic heft to heap on a film that is, at its most basic, an extended chase sequence. Have I mentioned yet that Apocalypto is first and foremost an exhilarating action movie? The story is tight, kinetic, and moves with the lithe speed of its athletic hero. There is nothing more mythic, more primal, than a man racing on foot through a jungle to save his pregnant wife and firstborn child from near-certain death. It's a variation on the tried-and-true, "damsel-in-distress tied to the train tracks" routine, sure, but it works in the most forearm-gripping way, because Gibson has invested these characters with distinct personalities and compelling character arcs.
What surprises about Apocalypto is that, for all its Mesoamerican accoutrements, the story is familiar in the best, most fundamental sense: it is the familiar story of what a man will do and endure to protect his family. Gibson contrasts the dehumanizing bloodletting of the powerful Mayan empire with a deep-seated humanism expressed through a cast of memorable and highly individual characters. Gibson possesses a painterly eye for stunning and expressive faces—faces you’ve never seen on film, but which are at once familiar. These are not the Noble Savages Hollywood loves to manufacture. Rather, Gibson bridges the gap between modern and ancient, Western and indigenous, by a surprising sensitivity and a consummate storytelling skill in place of staid, politically-correct clichés. From the devoted husband and father, Jaguar Paw, to the shrewish Grandmother and her big lug of a grandson, to the sniveling, malicious mercenary with the Dickensian name, "Snake Ink," Gibson’s deft direction yields terrific performances that renders their story immediate and moving. Gibson treats his dramatis personae as flesh-and-blood humans, not as subjects for anthropological study. If any other director had made this movie, there'd be no end to the kudos for having the imagination and chutzpah to bridge the centuries and continents of human distance.
The majority of actor-directors (Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford and Warren Beatty come to mind) gravitate towards character-driven stories starring big-name actors like themselves. Gibson, unlike his actor-director brethren, has developed his own, immediately recognizable style as director, both thematically and visually, paring down cinematic storytelling to its essentials.
Detractors accuse Gibson of being nuttier than a fruitcake—and he may be—but what critics conveniently ignore is that Gibson is producing sights heretofore unseen on the big screen, with the uncompromising intensity of an art-house indie filmmaker. Quentin Tarantino, film geek par excellence and no slouch in the moviemaking department himself, once said about Passion: "This is, like, the most visual movie by an actor since Charles Laughton made The Night of the Hunter. No, this is fifteen times more visual than that. It has the power of a silent movie."
So let's forget the critics. When it comes to movies, I’ll take the word of the man who wrote and directed Pulp Fiction. He, at least, knows something new when he sees it.