Family drama, black comedy and mob-imposed cruelty clash in Amat Escalante’s queasy Cannes’ Best Director-winning crime fable, Heli. It goes without saying that the Cannes jury has been known to make mistakes, especially when a film’s politics is allowed to cloud their judgement, but with Heli they rewarded an uneasy mix of ingredients in which any political subtext is muddy, and in which the storyteller is too self-consciously awkward to deliver a flick that one could call wholly satisfying.
In modern-day Mexico, 17-year-old Heli (Armando Espitia) lives in a dilapidated homestead with his wife, infant child, father and sister Estela (Andrea Vergara), working in the nearby car plant by night and having his advances rejected by his uninterested wife by day. The hard-living status quo is challenged when Estela’s much older cadet boyfriend, Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios), steals two parcels of cocaine belonging to the local cartel, and suddenly Beto, Heli and family are drawn into Mexico’s world of intrinsic violence and corruption.
Characters in Heli, under Amat Escalante’s supervision, are devoid of emotion or much in the way of personality, instead maddeningly reduced to automatons for the writer-director to shoot, beat and burn. Escalante puts his characters through hell (though you can’t care much about any of them as he keeps them at such a distance), while undermining the gravity of events with a mocking, imperious comedic tone. Lead Armando Espitia in particular is a blank, an amateur who’s apparently wandered onto the set of a professional shoot (let it never be said that Heli, on an independent budget, doesn’t look pretty special aesthetically, thanks in no small part to Lorenzo Hagerman’s confident cinematography).
Heli appears intended as a study of the title character’s masculinity. Him poor, uneducated and no longer desired or respected by his wife at the beginning of the film, and liberated through violence and once-more sexually active by the end. His ease in going caveman and resorting to brutal revenge in the latter stages is uncomfortable, as Heli takes matters into his own hands after he and Beto are tortured and Estela is kidnapped. What is Escalante saying here? That a man has to devolve to be a man? Surely not, but the director has too poor a grasp on his message, sacrificing clarity for the thematic and tonal jumble. The film more often than not feels muddled, and occasionally aimless, scuppered by an insistence on trying to say too much and be too many different things at once.
As a crime thriller, Heli is undone by the domestic drama. As social-realism, its concern for the characters, unwittingly trapped in some ‘wrong man’-scenario, feels insincere, thanks to Escalante’s supercilious gaze. The crime element is the film’s strongest point, with Escalante’s superb roving camerawork and emotional detachment a perfect fit for the matter-of-fact criminal activity. The scene in which Heli and family are captured by the cartel, as well as the subsequent close-up torture sequence, are undeniably gripping and unsettling. As Heli and Beto are dragged into a room for ‘interrogation,’ two young boys are seen playing on the Wii in the same space, so familiar with this life that they casually sit around and watch, before filming and even taking part in the torment.
In the film’s most disturbing moment, a member of the cartel squirts a character’s genitals with lighter fluid, then sets his testicles aflame, all of which we’re made to watch in a distressing long take. The same character is then hung by the neck off of a low bridge for the townsfolk to see, a warning and signal of power from the gangsters running these parts. Heli is allowed to live, and Heli’s mystery is poised to unravel, but after here the film becomes a less interesting one, drawing out the aftermath and Heli’s listless retribution for the kidnap of his sister over 40 minutes, and culminating in a flat conclusion that aims for intriguing ambiguity and misses. Most films end; this one merely cuts off.
Heli is too subdued, even sleepy at times, to have a major lasting impact. Emotionally, it’s inert, even if it does have an intermittent punch. A stark image of contemporary Mexico is drawn, portraying the country as corrupt and broke, a metaphorical desert matching the literal one of Heli’s visually arresting setting. Scenes of sudden violent and sexual shock hammer the feeling of unpredictability home, but these shouldn’t be the only moments Escalante wants to get right, not when he also touches upon serious issues of class, distribution of wealth and the modern family. It’s the callous flashes of brutality in Heli that will stick with you the most, as the rest appears almost intentionally unfulfilling.