Saturday, July 9, 2011
A person can't sit down to Apocalypto and leave it without the impression that it is the film of a great director. Mel Gibson loves history, and combined with perhaps the greatest understanding of the visceral next to Michael Mann of any director alive, he's capable of putting together great movies. I just finished watching Apocalypto and it is a masterpiece. Gibson, who wrote the screenplay with Farhad Safinia, has made a deeply historical horror movie that specializes in the bizarre, the crooked minds of ancient tribes (those studying the Mayans owe it to themselves to see the film), action, blood, and survival. After a lengthy opening scene full crude macho dialogue (a reminder that these tribes had men that weren't as strange and obscure as legend makes them to be and also a hint of Gibson's theme relating to modern America) that seems like it's straight out of a Hollywood buddy camping trip movie, and a warm introduction to the traditional "good" tribe, the movie becomes almost devoid of dialogue and turns into a surreal nightmare. The tribe is attacked by Mayans and the survivors are taken to their city, a hostile, horrific place rich with culture, violence, and insanity. Gibson, as expected, really gets into the horrors of human sacrifice integral to Mayan culture, though just when the films hero, Jaguar Paw, is about to be killed, a solar eclipse occurs and prompts his release. Thus begins perhaps the most exhilarating 45 minutes of cinema I've ever seen. It's a chase between a group of ruthless Mayan tribesmen and Jaguar Paw that goes deep into the jungle and like the jungle, seems to go on forever. Jaguar Paw has already been shot prior to the chase, and he has gone hours and hours without food or water. Yet he isn't just compelled to go on, to outrun his adversaries. He seems to become something more than a man during this sequence, not just because his life is at stake, but because the future of the tribe, of the jungle itself, rests on his shoulders. As he forges on, simultaneously dispatching the advancing Mayans, we get the sense he cannot be stopped. Apcoalypto is a restless, eager film, and Gibson is like a ferocious beast, tame enough to stress detail and drama, but still a beast, thriving on violence. The movie has a surprise ending that at first seemed superfluous, but ends up actually fitting into Gibson's overall scheme. You'll have to see it to find out and understand.