Wednesday, May 23, 2007
Directed by: Mel Gibson
Written by: Mel Gibson & Farhad Safinia
Starring: Rudy Youngblood, Dalia Hernandez
Color, 139 minutes
Over the course of his last three directorial efforts, Mel Gibson has established himself as some kind of bizarre, masochistic visionary. He is a highly manipulative filmmaker, never afraid to fall back on good old slow motion to get a point across, and at times it even seems as if he enjoys wallowing in the extreme violence that he displays on screen. In spite of all this, Gibson's talent shines through. Like Clint Eastwood, Gibson's ability behind the camera has already begun to outshine his teachers. There are quite a few negative things that could be said about Gibson the filmmaker, but you certainly can't say he's a coward. It takes a certain amount of balls and conviction to bring such a singular vision to the screen once, let alone multiple times.
Apocalypto is the latest addition to that particular vision, and it's a wild one. The Christian right across the country come out in droves and bought out entire screenings of Gibson's previous film (I don't think I need to remind you what that was), making it a box office smash, but, oddly enough, they stayed away this time. I guess people are willing to sit through an extremely violent, two and a half hour subtitled film as long as it's about Christ, but if it applies to any other subject then you can forget it. I digress, and descend from the soapbox because I too admired The Passion. It was a flawed film, for sure, but the technical aspects were stunning, and the same thing could easily be said of Apocalypto.
Set near the end of Maya civilization, the story focuses on a young man named Jaguar Paw (Youngblood) whose existence is severely threatened when his village is attacked by another tribe. Images of horror and destruction abound as limbs are hacked off, throats are slit, and children are swung by their ankles. Jaguar Paw is resourceful enough to lower his pregnant wife (Hernandez) and young son into a cave, but he is eventually captured along with the rest of the survivors, and taken on a journey to a great Mayan city to meet his doom as he's sacrificed to the gods. Jaguar Paw, of course, has other ideas, like getting back to his family, and the film culminates with a 45 minute run through the jungle.
While it's plot doesn't have a shred of originality to it, and Gibson and Safinia enjoy throwing in every jungle cliche imaginable (quicksand, waterfalls, etc.), Apocalypto is a wholly unique film. This film gives us a glimpse of a civilization we've never seen in cinema. Whether it's entirely accurate or not is irrelevant, and I could personally care less. Gibson and his cinematographer Dean Semler create very weird, almost surreal images that will burn themselves into your memory. Using high definition instead of film, Semler mixes crane and handheld camera work to great effect, and comes out with the best jungle photography ever put on screen. Production designer Tom Sanders (Bram Stoker's Dracula, Saving Private Ryan) is at his peak here, providing lavishly textured sets filled with eye popping detail. The great city itself is a work of art. The costumes by Mayes C. Rubeo are intimidating, frightening, and extremely beautiful. In fact, one could write an entire review praising the visual aspects of this film alone.
Going The Passion of The Christ one better, not only does Gibson retain the authentic Yucatec language, this time he gets amateurs to do the acting. This doesn't hinder the film, though, it only adds to it. Rudy Youngblood brings a vitality to this film that's missing in most of these kinds of period films. He has the grit of Kirk Douglas in Spartacus and the intensity of Gibson in Braveheart, but he's more effortless and charming than they were. His athleticism is obviously a big help in a role like this, but Youngblood is a naturally engaging performer, and I would like to see his career take off because of this. The entire supporting cast is great, most notably Rodolfo Palacios as the evil Snake Ink, who takes a special pleasure in torturing Jaguar Paw.
Unfortunately, Gibson has a tendency to lay it on pretty thick. He relishes in giving us close ups of wounds, blood, and torture. On top of this, we get too many lingering shots of crazy looking people staring directly into camera, most notably in the ridiculous scene with the prophetic, plague infested, demon girl. Gibson's flair for excess hampers the flow of the film, and threatens to really hurt the picture at times.
In the end, though, Apocalypto is a film you won't forget anytime soon. You may love it, you may not, and you can look as hard as you want for another reason to crucify Gibson, but he's here to stay. This film isn't perfect, but as a feat of action filmmaking, it's superb, and it's unlike anything you've ever seen before.