There are at least three movies here and two of them are great. There is the classic adventure saga of the hero who is trying to get home and save his family. Mel Gibson, as director, has created brilliant action sequences that make the best possible use of the settings and the loyalty he inspires for his characters. Second is a morality tale played out in a culture that is at the same time fascinatingly different and essentially the same as our own. A peaceful tribe is all but wiped out by marauding invaders from a more “developed” and complex culture, as the prospect of an even more “developed” and complex culture is about to arrive and create even more destruction.
And then there is that third film, a further exploration of Gibson’s fetishistic expiation through mortification of the flesh. The violence in this movie is so intense, so graphic, so overwhelming, so pornographic that it is like a whole separate movie, one that initially distracts from and then undermines the legitimacy of the other two.
Jaguar Paw (Rudy Youngblood) is the son of the chief of a small group of peaceful hunter-gatherers. When their community is destroyed by ruthlessly predatory attackers, he is able to hide his pregnant wife and son before he is taken away as a prisoner. The rest of the story is his escape, pursued by vicious warriors who will not stop until they have secured their revenge and their honor.
Gibson’s audacity pays off brilliantly in using mostly native performers and filming entirely in Mayan dialect (with subtitles), making us feel we are truly and vitally present in a world that has had no exposure to anything outside of a hunter-gathering society unchanged for millenia. Every one of the performances is stunningly open, intimate, brave, and natural.
Heart-stopping action sequences all but explode off the screen. Jaguar Paw’s desperate escape involves a vertiginous plunge down a thundering waterfall, darts poisoned with tree-frog venom, and an improvised grenade made from a beehive. The visuals are mesmerizing, from the smallest leaf of the rain forest to the grand sweep of great natural landscapes and a dizzyingly vast and complex pre-Columbian city with a palace, an arena, a towering altar for human sacrifice, and a marketplace for the sale of slaves.
No one expects a story like this to be bloodless. But the level, frequency, level of graphic detail, and intensity of the violence here is not about telling the story, and it inflicts damage on the narrative that even the movie’s compelling strengths cannot overcome.
Parents should know that this is one of the most explicitly violent movies ever made. It has extreme, intense, and graphic violence with many characters injured and killed. A community is pillaged with all kinds of butchery and assault, including rape and casual murder of children. Other scenes include suicide, human sacrifice, and a gladiator-like exercise in which humans are used for target practice. Characters, including children and a pregnant woman, are in constant peril. There is some strong and crude language. Characters wear revealing native attire and there is a non-explicit childbirth scene.
Families who see this movie should talk about the similarities to our culture (macho posturing, shared jokes, tenderness toward family, struggles with mothers-in-law, tribalism and hostility toward those who are different) and the significance of the final group of invaders. Characters in this movie have to decide what compromises and sacrifices they will undertake to stay alive or protect those they love. How do they make those choices? What is the significance of the name “Almost?”
Families who enjoy this movie will also enjoy Aguirre, the Wrath of God.