Here is a partial list of the indignities to which the human body is subjected in Mel Gibson's Mayan epic Apocalypto (Buena Vista): being impaled on a trap made of animal bones. Being forced to ingest tapir testicles. Being tricked into rubbing a caustic agent on one's own genitals while the whole village watches and laughs. Seeing one's father have his throat slit. Getting one's heart cut out in a sacrificial ritual. Having one's head subsequently chopped off and thrown down the stairs of a pyramid. Having one's face chewed off by a panther.
The above catalog of harm only begins to hint at the dulling and eventually comic frequency of physical violence in Apocalypto, which progresses as a series of static set pieces that are little more than narrative pretexts for graphically imagined anguish. Here's the story: Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) is a handsome young hunter who lives in a remote jungle village with his young son and pregnant wife (Dalia Hernandez). One fine day, the bewildered remnants of a neighboring tribe straggle in, warning that the village's bucolic way of life is in danger. Sure enough, the next day brings a raid by fierce warriors, who kidnap the tribe's able-bodied men and take them on a long forced march to the city, where they will be painted blue and lined up for human sacrifice. Jaguar Paw manages to hide his family in an abandoned well, but will he manage to get back to them before they starve or, worse, fall into the hands of the sadistic captors?
For a good hour, I tried to pretend that I had never heard of Mel Gibson: the maker of fanatical blockbusters, the spewer of hateful rants. I tried—really tried—to experience Apocalypto as an ethnographic thriller about an ancient culture. But though it may have been researched to within an inch of its life, this film is not, by any reasonable standard, ethnography. It teaches us nothing about Mayan civilization, religion, or cultural innovations. (Calendars? Hieroglyphic writing? Some of the largest pyramids on Earth?) Rather, Gibson's fascination with the Mayans seems to spring entirely from the fact (or fantasy) that they were exotic badasses who knew how to whomp the hell out of one another, old-school. You don't leave Apocalypto thinking of the decline of civilizations or the power of myth or anything much except, wow, that is one sick son of a bitch.
Though it never gains forward momentum until the final chase, when the hero races against time to save his family from the rapidly filling well, Apocalypto does have a weird and undeniable power. Watching human bodies narrowly escape a terrible fate—or, as in most cases, undergo it—is inherently compelling. The Mexico locations are breathtaking: A chase scene at a roaring waterfall is so spectacular, it makes Last of the Mohicans look like an Esther Williams musical. The film was shot by Dances With Wolves' Dean Semler on the best-looking digital video I've ever seen. And the final plot twist is a cleverly timed deus ex machina that opens the film out onto world history (while possibly presaging an even gorier sequel).
I could go on about the beautifully detailed production design, the fresh performances from unknown and often nonprofessional actors, blabbety blah. But praising the movie's craftsmanship seems less urgent than communicating the overwhelming experience of watching it: the clammy, claustrophobic dread of being trapped in a torture chamber. Even the movie's rare moments of humor are pain-based—see the above-mentioned scenes of tapir-ball ingestion and caustic crotch-burning, both visited on the tribe's comic foil, Blunted (Jonathan Brewer). The sadomasochism gets more unintended laughs in other bits, including an arterial head wound that spurts blood at intervals, Monty Python and the Holy Grail-style. Myself, I had to stifle a giggle when the bad guys got out a large leather kit full of torture tools—spears, hatchets, and the like. It looked like something you might purchase at a sex-goods shop in San Francisco.
Apocalypto opens with a quote from Will Durant that seems to make a connection between the decline of Mayan civilization and the ills of the present day: "A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself." Sounds deep, but what are the parallels Gibson is suggesting between the decadence of the Mayan empire and our own? The film's moral universe is too Manichean and self-contained to suggest any real allegory with current events. I think the movie's real epigraph comes in another scene. As the kidnapped villagers slog along a narrow mountain path, manacled together, the last man in line slips over the cliff edge, nearly dragging his fellow captives with him. Instructed by chief Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo) to cut the dangler loose from the pack, the cruelest of the captors, Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios), puts him off for a moment: "Let's see what happens." Snake Ink, it seems, is perversely fascinated with the physics of suffering: If the guy falls, how many men will he take with him? What kind of splat will they make when they hit the ground? If he could just scrape together $80 million, Snake Ink might have a movie on his hands.