First of all, this is a movie made with an all-indigenous cast, which is pretty unique in Hollywood. The movie is about the Mayan culture and anyone who has a connection to that, particularly Mexican Americans, hopefully it will be well-received by them. On the other hand, it’s a flat-out action picture. College kids will want to see it.
—Disney spokesman Dennis Rice, L.A. Times (13 November 2006)
I will peel his skin and have him watch me wear it.
—Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo)
To hear Mel Gibson tell it—in his very sober Apocalypto promo spots—beginnings follow endings. This construction seems to fly in the face of conventional narrative logic, but don’t be fooled. Though it does use a Mayan dialect (spoken today), plus subtitles, and focuses wholly on folks of color, this is a profoundly orthodox exercise. A basic chase movie featuring grim-faced villains in hot pursuit of a beautiful hero, it provides Gibson with yet another canvas on which to paint his scheme of masculine suffering unto glory.
Looking like a precursor to Mad Max, Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) has to manage his chase plot on his feet—no turbo engines or gasoline. And it’s true, as Gibson attests, his route is circular: dragged from his tranquil, leafy-wet village to a desiccated, rotting hull of a Mayan kingdom, Jaguar Paw’s remarkably vigorous determination carries him and his assailants back around to the village by film’s end. In a less lunk-headed movie, such looping might be thematically astute, making visible personal and collective journeys, leading to “new beginnings.” But in this movie, the route is only obvious, leading exactly where you know it will.
Jaguar Paw begins his saga in mid-chase, as he and his fellow hunters track and kill a tapir, using an ingenious and brutal trap to do it. Once the animal is whacked through its middle with spikes, they laugh and congratulate each other. When it comes time to pass around the choice body parts, they give the tapir balls to poor Blunted (Jonathan Brewer), legendarily unable to get it up for his loving wife, not to mention her loudly discontented mother. When he attempts to follow the ritual Jaguar Paw describes, eating the balls raw, Blunted gags as his buddies are beside themselves with glee. How grand it is to be raunchy, rowdy young men!
This being an allegory about cycles, it’s not long before their idyllic life ends. The “fear” puts the kibosh on such good fun: Jaguar Paw’s crew espies the remnants of a neighboring tribe, bedraggled and sad-faced. When Jaguar Paw and his father Flint Sky (Morris Bird) wonder what these intruders are doing in their own area of the forest, the intruders are apologetic. They don’t say what has beset them, only that they are in search of a “new beginning.” Flint Sky sees that his son is troubled by what he sees, especially a young man whose haunted face will appear again and again in Jaguar Paw’s mind, a seeming mirror of his own self-doubt and nightmares. Flint Sky tells his son, “Fear is a sickness,” he declares, “It has tainted your peace already… Strike it from your heart.” Um, too late.
The villains—a band of Holcane warriors—arrive en masse and in the dead of night, raping women, burning down thatch homes, and dragging off bloodied men for use in ritual sacrifice (they mean to save their own civilization, besieged by illness and famine, not to mention fat and greedy royals, most visibly, a young prince). Jaguar Paw earns the particular wrath of two warriors: Zero Wolf (Raoul Trujillo, wearing human bones, feathers, and a big-cat jaw, making him seem the ancestor of Road Warrior‘s Lord Humungus combined with Wez) and his second, a gnarly killer named Snake Ink (Rodolfo Palacios).
As if the numerous shots of Jaguar Paw’s anxious and judgmental face were not enough to assure your understanding that these warriors are not only bad but also doomed, the film includes other warnings. As they travel with their “capture” in tow (tied to each other and poles they must carry like crosses), they come on a young “Oracle Girl” (so named in the credits and played by Maria Isidra Hoil), afflicted with “the sickness.” Crouched over her mother’s corpse, she alarms the big men who refuse to touch her. Poked with a stick and told to keep back, she looks especially tragic, but also eerily knowing, her face marked by oozy sores and her voice carrying as the camera pulls back from her: “Beware the blackness of the day,” she says, “The day will be like night.” (Can you guess what “miraculous” sign will appear in the next scene?) And oh yes, “Beware the man who brings the jaguar.”
The Oracle Girl embodies the literalism that beleaguers Apocalypto. If no one knows exactly how and why the Mayans came undone—assuming the Spanish “explorers” didn’t do it in one fell swoop—the movie offers up an assortment of explanations, material and spiritual (see here, the Will Durant quotation that opens the film: “A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within”). The Holcanes are plainly fearful themselves, but turn such feeling into aggression and meanness, performing cruel pagan rituals. When they reach the city, Jaguar Paw and his fellow villagers are appalled (more reaction shots, and those passing POV shots familiar from The Passion of the Christ ensure you share this response).
First the warriors sell the captured women as slaves; then they paint the young men blue and haul them to the top of a pyramid overlooking a central square, filled with anxious citizens. Here the priests pronounce themselves and their followers “people of faith” who are “destined to be masters of time, nearest to the gods.” Toward that end, they not only cut out their victims’ hearts (available in throbbing, bloody close-ups), but also lop off their heads, which then plunk-plunk-plunk down the pyramid steps into the crowd below. Again, they cheer and whoop.
Apocalypto makes such horrors abundantly visible (to the point that a preview audience laughed at the plunking heads, they were so excessive). But it also revels in the spectacle of victimization as it becomes vengeance. This interest plainly comports with that other one, in cycles of endings and beginnings, as victims may become aggressors in a next cycle. (The movie ends with the arrival of men in ships, wearing helmets and crucifixes, suggesting that another, much harsher new beginning is yet to come.)
Apocalypto‘s thematic concerns are well served by Dean Semler’s frankly gorgeous camerawork: every shot as Jaguar Paw runs and leaps and climbs through the forest, pursued by Zero Wolf, Snake Ink, and other warriors bent on killing him, is pretty much breathtaking. Once Jaguar Paw escapes the city, he enters into what appears another dimension. He has no other plot but to return to his pregnant wife Seven (Dalia Hernandez) and their young son (Carlos Emilio Baez), whom he has hidden from the marauders in a currently empty well; a rainstorm approaches, threatening they will drown in the well; every so often during his race home, Jaguar Paw hears thunder rumbling and pleads to the sky: “Don’t rain!”
Driven to save his family, Jaguar Paw becomes capable of incredible feats. Like Mad Max, Martin Riggs, Tom Mullen, William Wallace, and Benjamin Martin before him (all Gibson action heroes), Jaguar Paw is resourceful, devious, and startlingly athletic (he runs and runs, for hours). Most emphatically, the chase plot provides for plenty of bodily abuse. Jaguar Paw takes the pain, brings the pain, and then underlines and italicizes the pain again. His extraordinary feats of derring-do recall those you’ve seen before (the film quotes The Fugitive, Predator, Braveheart, and Passion, among others). But while he suffers mightily, Jaguar Paw’s own heroism is never rendered costly. Even as he exacts vicious vengeance on the Holcane bullies, the film doesn’t ever get around to considering consequences.