Amat Escalante is the youngest director by a considerable margin to have a film In Competition at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, though he’s no stranger to having his films shown there – his debut Sangre and follow-up The Bastards have both showed up in Un Certain Regard in previous years. His third feature, Heli, sees the director graduate to the big(ger) leagues, joining the likes of Soderbergh, Ozon, Miike and the Coen Brothers this year in the festival’s most esteemed banner, competing for the prized Palme d’Or.
It’s a grim start for Escalante’s latest, which opens with a man being thrown and hanged from a bridge, the motivation behind which we do not realize for quite some time. Like many – arguably too many – entries into the so-called New Mexican Wave of recent years, the narrative focal point to Heli is a combination of neo-realism (early glimpses of the titular character performing rote manual labor cement this) and visceral brutality, absolutely unforgiving in the depths it dares audiences to plunge.
For most of the film we follow two characters; 12-year-old Estela (Andrea Vergara) has fallen head over heels for a 17-year-old police cadet and wants to run away with him to get married, if the boyfriend’s commitment to a brutal drug ring doesn’t get in the way; and her older brother, Heli (Armando Espitia), who meanwhile finds himself struggling to balance his relationship with his own family, as Estela’s situation becomes ever more fraught with danger once she goes missing.
If the harshness of the Mexican landscape has been well-traversed by now, Escalante finds new terrain by examining the corrupt heart of the country’s infrastructure, specifically the hostility ingrained into young cadets from day one. In more specific terms, the Mexico we see here delivers little but harsh brutality, unnerving in its frankness in a manner not dissimilar to last year’s shocking bullying drama After Lucia. Rampant animal abuse and a particularly disturbing scene of genital mutilation ensured several walk-outs at tonight’s world premiere press screening, something sure to be repeated at the festival proper in far greater abundance.
Unpleasant though these scenes are, they at least serve a point, in amounting to an angry cinematic scream for Mexico, a cry for justice, one delivered home with high-frequency, sledgehammer force. Escalante makes only a few excessive missteps in the pursuit of this goal; a clip of three severed heads on a Mexican TV channel severely strains credibility for a moment, and a brief instance of gratuitously bare breasts will invite more laughs than anything else (which, even if it is the intent, is wildly out of place).
That said, Heli does boast occasional bouts of honest-to-God, wholly unexpected humor. In the relationships between the characters, there is also a surprising level of tenderness, even during the wildly inappropriate communion between child and teen in the film’s early stages (which somehow manages to play out more like a quirky odd couple than a predatory one-way creep-fest). Escalante smartly sticks to protracted takes to get the best out of his cast, specifically youngster Andrea Vergara, who naturally comes to represent the narrative’s honest, innocent heart.
Though it tapers off slightly in its final portion, and the no-holds-barred approach won’t be for everyone, this director’s depiction of the cyclical nature of violence will implant images into viewer’s minds that won’t soon disappear. A decidedly moral film that nevertheless opts for a nihilistic out, Heli breathes fresh life into a well-trodden argument.
The Upside: Viewers with the stomach to sit through Escalante’s unforgiving method will uncover a brutal find and a potential gem of the festival (though Spielberg’s heading the jury makes its Palme chances slim).
The Downside: It can be argued that the film’s lengthy torture sequences are exploitative, and an opening in-media-res scene seems rather pointless within the context of the story beyond mere shock quality.