The final film in Luis Estrada’s pitch-black comic trilogy, “Hell” limns an even more hellish vision of Mexico than the previous two installments, “Herod’s Law” and “A Wonderful World.” Its downtrodden antihero, deported from the U.S. where he lived illegally for 20 years, returns to a country unimaginably worse than the one he left, where drugs and corruption are the only games in town. Estrada’s undiluted mix of politics, corrosive humor, folkloric characters and explosive violence could easily find fans north of the border.
Denounced by the government yet championed by critics and audiences alike, “Hell” virtually swept the Ariels (Mexico’s equivalent of the Academy Awards) and tallied record B.O. receipts domestically. Unfortunately, buyers have shied away from Estrada’s films; “Herod’s Law,” despite its strong Sundance showing, never found its audience, and one fears that leery distribs will deem “Hell” too violent for arthouses and too foreign for multiplexes, consigning it to limbo despite its timeliness.
Feckless, unassuming Benny Garcia (again played by Damian Alcazar), his aw-shucks grin supplementing his Warren Oates-like charm, arrives home after 20 years in the States to discover that his hometown has virtually folded, with most of his friends either deceased or on the drug payroll. His kid brother earned the nickname El Diablo as an ace hitman for the Reyes cartel before getting offed himself.
Reyes (Ernesto Gomez Cruz) and his bloodthirsty wife (Maria Rojo) are locked in internecine combat with Reyes’ own brother, their relatives dropping like flies. Benny’s old bud El Cochiloco (an unforgettable turn by Joaquin Cosio), both loyal and imposingly fearless, offers him a job with Reyes, but Benny refuses due to moral conviction tinged with a healthy dose of cowardice.
But Benny moves in with his fatherless nephew (Kristyan Ferrer) and El Diablo’s curvaceous widow (Elizabeth Cervantes), a waitress/whore at the local watering hole. Under the pretext of supporting his newfound family, Benny plunges wholeheartedly into crime. It’s not exactly a perfect fit: He has problems killing people. Yet Benny is soon sporting gaudy clothes, skimming money from his boss, terrorizing on command and buying presents for his nearest and dearest, who piously caution him about his immoral activities while cheerfully profiting from his fall. What with police, feds, politicians and clergy uniformly on the take, paranoia runs rampant and bodies pile up.
A master at sustaining his characters’ likability even under grotesque circumstances, Estrada maintains an absurdist irony throughout; among American helmers, perhaps only Quentin Tarantino could graft this peculiar comic mindset onto a genre film. But Estrada’s edge is sharper and angrier, his political dissection cutting bone-deep.
Fiction has trouble outdoing reality in Mexico nowadays; ironically, “Hell” received public financing to commemorate the nation’s dual milestones (the country’s 200th anniversary, the revolution’s 100th).