Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto: A Masterpiece in Need of a Revival


I always forget that most people think of Mel Gibson as an actor. Not that I don’t understand why. That’s how we first found him; he’s been in several classics and even more not-classics. I mean… he played Hamlet. He’s an actor.

Still, for me he will always be a director first. Despite only directing four movies as of this writing, his work ranges from iconic to challenging to overrated to underrated.

And the best of them is Apocalypto.


Apocalypto opens with an important quotation from Will Durant: “”A great civilization is not conquered from without until it has destroyed itself from within.”


It’s important, because Apocalypto’s story is one of those deceptively simple ones. We follow a young hunter named Jaguar Paw. Early on, raiders attack his village. As the raiders drag him away, his wife and child remain behind, stranded in a deep pit. Now he must find a way to break free and return to his home to save them before the sum of the jungle’s harsh elements takes their lives. His task is simple, but far from easy; all sorts of challenges arise and must be overcome.

Apocalypto is relentlessly physical: The men and women wear traditional jungle garb — i.e., very little — and they wield traditional jungle weapons — i.e., clubs and spears. Even normal events, like trudging through a muddy street or cleaning a slain tapir, feel far more tangible than they do in most movies.

But when things ramp up into full-throated action territory, the gloves come off. Our hero J.P. fords rivers, dodges arrows, even jumps off a huge waterfall. Warriors on both sides are cut down with arrows, broken upon rocks, and gored by animals. There are some wipeouts in this movie. The violence isn’t overly bloody so much as it is just brutal.


I suppose, given the content of most reviews, I have some responsibility at this point to address Gibson’s obvious fascination with human bodies coming apart. I shouldn’t have to, but it just keeps coming up.

I don’t think Mel Gibson gets a hard-on for violence. I don’t think that his movies revel in it, or ever treat it as something we should be hoping happens. Violence only begets more violence, as we see in the moment where a bruised eye must be fixed with a knife wound.

No, what violence functions as in a Gibson film is the measure of a man’s will. When we see Wallace executed (spoiler?), or Jesus scourged (same?), or Jaguar Paw’s enemies dashed against rocks, we’re seeing what each of these men is willing to sacrifice or risk for what he believes in. Gibson tells stories of people who found something for which they will endure anything.

There’s also the honesty of Gibson’s violence. For much of our history (including the present day, I might add), we humans have gotten business done through murder, theft, vandalism, and destruction. It’s how we do. To sanitize the cost of brutality is to do it a disservice. Gibson doesn’t shy away from the uncomfortable.


Which is notable in this case, because it doesn’t get much more uncomfortable than a string of pitiful human sacrifices; prisoners eviscerated and beheaded to appease a sun god.

That sequence is just extraordinary. As our train of prisoners approaches the city, we see the literal layers of enslavement and decadence that have grown around the bloody pyramid at its center. In one particularly striking stop, we see boys mining what I assume is limestone. One of them coughs up blood. All this work, all this pain, just to create the colors the powerful use to festoon their walls.

In this city, those who are truly useless aren’t killed; they’re simply ignored. Truly, this is a cultured barbarism. The citizens of this city look like nothing so much as Hunger Games citizens in the ancient world, with their clothes and hair taking all sorts of bizarre shapes. Crucially, this seems as foreign to Jaguar Paw as it is to us. It’s always a shock to take a good look at the people who wield power over others.


What makes this scene even sicker is the unspoken (but obvious) way that the royalty and high priest already know of the impending eclipse, and clearly aren’t slaughtering these innocents in any sort of earnest religious impulse. Rather, they’re doing it to impose some sort of rule-by-fear over the citizens who worship beneath them. It’s like one of those old Renaissance paintings of Hell.

Oh, and meanwhile, Jaguar Paw’s wife Seven is trying to shelter herself and her son from injuries, vicious animals, and the occasional sharp rock. As J.P.’s friends find themselves physically dismembered, so this barbarism threatens to sever the ties between our young hero and his own family. The strong destroy the weak and leave them no way out of the pit.

The whole grotesque tableau feels informed by that opening quote. Those words make this nightmarish trip into the city the beating heart of Apocalypto. They’re why this isn’t JUST a story about a hunter escaping his captors. We aren’t just watching a talented filmmaker ratchet up suspense in an action thriller, we’re voyeurs to a civilization tearing itself apart.


This isn’t where our story ends, though.

After all this thematic talk it’s worth pointing out that — as if getting a front-row seat to the nadir of high society wasn’t enough — the movie’s third act* comprises one of the great extended chase sequences in cinema history. Though a number of his comrades don’t survive, J.P. manages to set out on a mad dash back through the jungle with half-mad soldiers hot on his heels. I won’t go into great detail, because it’s really one of those “must be seen to be believed” things, and if you’ve already seen it then you already know.

Just trust me when I say it’s a showstopper: Jaguar Paw in a fight to the death with a group of vicious killers. Gibson’s camera adores these men, finding image after striking image that shows the sheer magnitude of the arena these warriors have to fight in. You can pick your favorite shots; there’s at least three  in the waterfall sequence that might be mine. Regardless of which individual moment strikes you, it’s one of the most rousing action scenes of recent memory. Real “hell yeah!” stuff.


The riches of this movie are just about endless. I haven’t even talked about the surprisingly subtle character work. The haunting music. That extraordinary labor scene Gibson juxtaposes against J.P.’s climactic fight in the jungle.

Or the ending that just shows up and reminds me so much of Lord of the Flies and is just about one of the best endings of the past decade. Why?

Because it, like everything else we’ve talked about, it all goes back to that quote at the beginning.



*I try to avoid this terminology, but the three-act model fits really well in this case.

**A general footnote that just didn’t fit anywhere in the article: All of the above is the reason that the rumored Viking film Gibson was working on at one point remains the saddest loss in cinema history. To me, at least. I’m pretty sure I would have watched that like fifty times.

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  1. Darn you David – you’ve done it again. You have made me want to go back and watch something that I passively just went ahead and dismissed as an “ok” movie. You’re write up on it has made me think that I would like it much better with a 2nd possibly 3rd viewing. Curse you! 😉

    1. That’s sort of what I see as my schtick around here.

      FWIW, this one that improved for me with repeat viewings. I seem to remember my initial impression being something like, “well, even if it’s a bit slow to start, that got pretty badass towards the end.” A friend of mine was trumpeting a version of what I wrote here, which encouraged a pretty enlightening second viewing.

  2. Very well said that man. May I also say that the choice of actors was also amazing. Each and every one of the characters were so richly drawn …. wonderful to watch !

  3. Nice points, David, just a couple thoughts on my part.

    If terminology does indeed matter to you as indicated in your footnotes, it would be “savagery” rather than “barbarism.” There are certain distinction between “Savages” And “Barbarians” that separate the two and the peoples of the Americas fall in the “Savage” category.

    Other than that, I just wanted to comment that as a Mayan myself, the primary thing I took away from this movie was madre de dios, that panther (jaguar since panthers technically do not exist) was so unrealistic it was laughable – like a big ridiculous plush vs a man hahaha.

    1. Word? What are the distinctions? I was using the term to mean “extreme cruelty or brutality,” as the dictionary puts it. Are there other cultural connotations I’m not aware of?

  4. It’s a real shame that Gibson had his stupid public brain meltdown because he is such a talented filmmaker. But you don’t piss off every Jew, woman, and bleeding heart in the world without professional consequences. Now it’s like all he’s good for is playing ironically doofy villains in intentionally cheesy action movies when he could be giving us more works like this one. What a tool.

  5. This movie was fantastic. I have been singing its praises for years and I always avoid mentioning Mel Gibson so people wont just dismiss it cause of that. You should have also mentioned one of the funniest and most unsuspecting movie moments ever. When J.P.’s father gives his friends the leaves to help his wife get pregnant and hilarity ensues. It shows that this tiny village was a happy place where there was laughter and no fear. No fear is a big element to the village in the beginning.
    I need to rewatch it again now!

  6. I saw this film for the first time just a few months ago. I had avoided it for all the typical reasons… too violent, too inaccurate, too everything. And I LOVED IT. Sorry, I think Tarantino movies are SOOO much more violent (and seemingly just for fun) than Gibson’s yet no one says as much about that. Gibson’s portrayal of violence strikes me more as an attempt to show what things were really like. Or to add contrast to the light moments of his films. I also enjoyed the realistic portrayal of daily life in this film. One minor moment that sticks in my mind is during the executions when the priest’s wife smacks her kid for being annoying. So like a real family – just in a very unfamiliar situation for our society. Brilliant touch, IMO.

    So agree. Would have loved to see more movies directed by Gibson. His work was amazing and what we didn’t get is a sad loss.

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