Maybe it's the moment when a spurt of blood shoots from the Mayan warrior's exposed brain. It could be the arrow that enters the back of a fleeing man's head and comes out of his mouth. Or perhaps the sequence of beating hearts extracted from slashed-open chests.
You could go on and on with "Apocalypto," Mel Gibson's often mesmerizing movie about bad times and heroic struggle near the end of the Mayan empire. But at some point, you realize that Gibson is more obsessed than ever with excruciating pain.
This is a shame. For all the film's beauty and mythic grandeur, it's the fetishistic fascination with gore that stays in your head and distracts from almost everything else the movie tries to do.
Some viewers said the same thing about Gibson's last movie, "The Passion of the Christ," built around the longest torture sequence you're ever likely to see in a movie. In that case, defenders stood up for the importance of seeing what Jesus went through for your sins. It's possible that someone will argue for the importance of the guy who has his face eaten by a jaguar in "Apocalypto," but he's just one of many victims in Gibson's bloodfest. Then it's on to the next impalement or bludgeoning.
No one's arguing that the time and place depicted were all about peace and love. The point of this story about the young tribesman Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) who escapes captivity and tries to save his family is that the Mayans were at each other's throats before the Conquistadors showed up. (Historians are free to argue this point at length.) In any case, you expect some blood here.
But we're not just talking blood. We're talking long stretches in which every directorial decision seems designed for maximum, sometimes laughably horror-style shock. Gibson certainly isn't looking for a response of uncontrollable laughter, but that's what "Apocalypto" received, time and again, at a recent preview screening as the over-the-top gore went further and further over the edge. Imagine a hybrid of the hypnotic jungle epic "Aguirre, The Wrath of God" and the tongue-in-cheek splatter of the "Evil Dead" movies and you'll get some gauge of this unique concoction.
Here's the confounding part: When it's not painting the screen red, or reveling in the minute details of human sacrifice, "Apocalypto" has a deliberative beauty and primal reverence for its surroundings and characters. Like "The Passion," "Apocalypto" was made in an ancient language - in this case, Mayan. Shot on location in the rain forests of Catemaco, Mexico, it begins as a tragic slog, as a peaceful tribe is captured and marched to its doom. Then it builds to an epic foot chase, as Jaguar Paw flees and masterfully navigates his native environment.
"Apocalypto," as you might guess, is concerned with end times, specifically how civilizations implode from within. This may be Gibson's way of diverting blame from imperialist forces; the Mayan civilization we see here is essentially fattening itself before the kill. But there are many ways to tell a story about civilization in decline. It's notable that Gibson chose one that spotlights blood spurting from a brain. "Apocalypto" has a way of ogling the severity of its violence.
The costumes and cinematography are mesmerizing; at its best "Apocalypto" recalls the unique out-of-time sensation of the 2001 Inuit film "The Fast Runner." The efforts to infuse the Mayans with humor, ego, pride and regret are impressive; modern audiences should have no trouble locating the humanity here, especially in a pair of father/son relationships, one among the invaders, the other among the invaded.
But modern audiences may also look at the zest for carnage and think either "That was really cool, dude" (from the graphic horror crowd) or "Wow, this guy has some serious issues." "Apocalypto" passes through sadism on its way to spirituality, and it indulges in a whole lot of hideousness to attain its beauty.
Perhaps this ties into Gibson's idea of sacrifice. But it doesn't make "Apocalypto" any easier to watch.