I am Jaguar Paw. This is my forest. And I am not afraid.
There is a temptation when discussing Mel Gibson's Apocalypto to tear it apart to throw the harsh light of history on its many inaccuracies and anachronisms. However, searching for historical accuracy in a Mel Gibson film is like trying to find healthy food at KFC; you won't find it, and you'd be better off looking elsewhere. Gibson has a storied history of mixing fact and fiction to crowd-pleasing effect, with the likes of Braveheart and The Patriot surviving the polemics of a thousand history professors to be successful and loved. Let's leave questions of accuracy behind us since they really are beside the point.
Apocalypto is a surprisingly (or unsurprisingly, considering who is behind the camera) volatile film that actively resists being pinned down as any single kind of film. If anything, it's four or five films. It goes through stages of being a broad comedy; an horrific fever dream as our hero, a young Mayan warrior named Jaguar Paw (Ruby Youngblood) is taken from his village and marched through the jungle, witnessing acts of cruelty and terror; a Bacchanalian orgy of blood and evisceration; an hour long chase sequence as he tries to return home to his pregnant wife and child; and First Blood with even lower technology as he fights for his life. It's a mix of styles and ideas that could overwhelm the film but, against all the odds, it fits together perfectly. Each scene, whether it is just a group of hunters talking after a kill, or a grand shot of thousands of baying Mayans standing at the bottom of a temple as a grand priest sacrifices men and cuts out their hearts, feels at home and the drive of the story is never allowed to droop or slow thanks to the guiding hand of Mel Gibson.
In light of his extra-curricular activities, which at one point seemed poised to turn him into the next Charlton Heston, and not in a good way, Mel Gibson's abilities as a film-maker are often overshadowed. Lest we forget, this is the man who somehow made a brutally violent film about Jesus and turned it into one of the most successful independent films of all time. That's the sort of success even Cecil B. Demille wouldn't have expected from a Bible picture. It's easy to characterise the success of that earlier film as solely the result of Gibson courting the Christian Right, but that is to completely ignore how good of a film it is. It's an unpleasant watch, certainly, but there is a confidence and a raw, visceral power to it that lifts it up.
That same confidence suffuses Apocalypto from beginning to end. Even it's title, Mel Gibson's Apocalypto, speaks volumes about his sense of self-possession; it's not a film by Mel Gibson, it is Mel Gibson's. His camera moves with a power and purpose that few directors can match. It's a very masculine style of directing that distinctly says that this is a film about men. It's got a tremendous physicality to it, its violence has an immediacy and an intimacy that many modern action films lack. The crunch of club on bone, the liquidity of a spear piecing someone's side, it all serves to put the audience right in there with the flailing bodies.
Despite being over two hours long, its a surprisingly economical film. It never lingers too long on a scene and, even in the early scenes in which we witness a man being tricked into eating tapir testicles, we never get a sense that the film is just killing time until the plot kicks in. These early scenes introduce us to the characters and help us acclimatise to a world that has long since passed into memory. This does lead to some horribly contrived dialogue about a mother-in-law wanting grandchildren that seems tailormade to appease an American audience, but I've already said my piece about historical accuracy so we'll just ignore that.
Once he's got us in the world of the Maya, Gibson throws everything we've seen before out the window, leaving us as disorientated as Jaguar Paw, and from there on in we are never given an opportunity to get our feet back on the ground, right through to the somewhat overcooked finale.
It's a vibrant, violent film which displays a bravura flair for the extravagant on the part of Gibson. He may very well have lost his marbles, but if he can keep occasionally making films like this, I'm happy for them to stay lost.