×

Cannes Film Review: ‘Heli’

An accomplished but singularly unpleasant immersion in Mexico's vicious cycle of drug-fueled violence

With:
Armando Espitia, Andrea Vergara, Linda Gonzalez, Juan Eduardo Palacios.

“Open your eyes so you don’t miss the show,” instructs one character midway through “Heli,” shortly before a kidnapped man is beaten with an oversized paddle and stripped to the ankles, his genitals doused in alcohol and set merrily ablaze. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that the title (and title character) invokes a certain place of eternal damnation in this nihilistic third feature by Carlos Reygadas acolyte Amat Escalante, who plunges us deep into Mexico’s vicious cycle of drug-fueled violence, with no end — or much of a discernable point — in sight. Destined to traumatize buyers and audiences in roughly equal measure, this accomplished but singularly unpleasant pic lends this year’s Cannes competition its first authentic whiff of scandal.

Surely the most explicit, realistically violent film to premiere on Cannes’ main stage since Brillante Mendoza’s controversial “Kinatay” (which ended up winning the fest’s directing prize in 2009), “Heli” opens on the telling image of a bound-and-gagged man having his face pressed into the bed of a pickup truck by an unseen assailant’s boot. When the truck pulls over, another body is unloaded, carried to the top of a freeway overpass and hung by the neck for all to see. Pic then loops back to explain who these men are and how they got here.

One of them is Heli (the very good Armando Espitia), an auto factory worker in an unnamed Mexican desert region modeled on Guanajuato, who lives a modest existence with his wife (Linda Gonzalez), infant son, father and 12-year-old sister, Estela (Andrea Vergara). Coursing with pubescent desire, Estela has begun seeing the older Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios), an army cadet who impresses her with his macho brio (one indelible image has him curling Estela like a human barbell). But back at boot camp, Beto himself is subjected to such emasculating hazing rituals as being forced to writhe about in his own vomit — yet more indication that “Heli” intends to leave little to the imagination.

Pic’s escalating chain of carnage is set off by Beto’s theft of two sizable packages of cocaine in an ill-conceived bid to finance his and Estela’s elopement. When Heli discovers the drugs stashed in a water tank, he quickly disposes of them — a decision that buys him little mercy from the crooked cops who soon come calling. This leads directly to the pic’s charnel-house centerpiece, a squirm-inducing but undeniably striking sequence that juxtaposes its real-time torture against dead-eyed teens playing videogames, gazing indiscriminately from real to virtual bloodletting and back again.

In moments like that, plus a later encounter between Heli and a policewoman with a most unusual bedside manner, Escalante hits on a kind of absurd tragicomedy that captures the plight of his characters more effectively than the pic’s de facto mode of sledgehammer miserablism, including several unsettling acts of animal cruelty. While there can be no faulting the filmmaker’s sincerity in wanting to cinematically render the chaos wrought on his country by poverty and the drug wars, much of what “Heli” has to say feels either obvious and/or exhausted by a raft of other recent narrative and documentary features on similar subjects (including Gerardo Naranjo’s acclaimed “Miss Bala” and the Sundance hit “Narco Cultura”). Even Escalante’s own two previous Cannes-premiered features, “Sangre” and “Los bastardos,” proffered similar portraits of violent despair on both sides of the border, adding to the feeling that this clearly talented helmer has gone to this particular well one too many times.

Cannes Film Review: 'Heli'

Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 15, 2013. Running time: 105 MIN.

Production: (Mexico-Germany-Netherlands-France) A Mantarraya/Tres Tunas production in association with Nodream Cinema, in co-production with Le Pacte, Foprocine-Conaculta, Unafilm, Lemming Film, Tikoman and IKE Asistencia, with the support of Fonds Sud Cinema, Film und Medien Stiftung NRW, the Netherlands Film Fund, Sundance/NHK and ZDF Arte. (International sales: NDM, Mexico City.) Produced by Jaime Romandia, Carlos Reygadas, Amat Escalante.

Crew: Directed by Amat Escalante. Screenplay, Escalante, Gabriel Reyes. Camera (color, HD), Lorenzo Hagerman; editor, Natalia López; production designer, Daniela Schneider; sound (Dolby Digital), Catriel Vildosola; sound designer, Sergio Díaz; re-recording mixer, Vinent Arnardi.

With: Armando Espitia, Andrea Vergara, Linda Gonzalez, Juan Eduardo Palacios.

More Film

  • Disney's 'Aladdin' Set for May 24

    Disney's 'Aladdin' Set For May 24 China Debut, Day-And-Date With U.S.

    Disney’s new live-action “Aladdin” will release in China on May 24, day-and-date with North America, giving the studio a run of three films in Chinese theaters as many months.  Directed by Guy Ritchie, who also co-write the screenplay, and starring Will Smith and Canadian newcomer Mena Massoud, the film will be the twelfth live-action remake [...]

  • Patrimonio

    Film Review: 'Patrimonio'

    Though it never really went away on much of the globe, a sort of creeping feudalism is making such a striking comeback — with the ever-more-fabulously-rich squeezing the poor of every dime and resource — that Lisa F. Jackson and Sarah Teale’s documentary “Patrimonio” feels like a frightening portent. Will such crude appropriations of land [...]

  • Fan Bingbing

    Fan Bingbing Starts to Re-Emerge Months After Tax Scandal

    Half a year after she was found guilty of tax fraud and disappeared from the public eye, Chinese superstar Fan Bingbing has begun to signal her comeback, attending a gala event and launching her own beauty product on social media this week. The 37-year-old actress unexpectedly hit the red carpet in Beijing on Monday at [...]

  • I Trapped the Devil

    Film Review: 'I Trapped the Devil'

    “I Trapped the Devil” sounds like the title of a sermon or gospel song, but it’s a very literal-minded statement coming from the mouth of a leading character in writer-director Josh Lobo’s debut feature. This being a horror film, there’s a chance he’s even literally correct, rather than simply mad. A mixed-bag frightfest, IFC’s limited [...]

  • American Factory

    Tribeca Film Review: 'American Factory'

    When the last truck rolled off the assembly line of the General Motors factory outside Dayton, Ohio, filmmakers Steven Bognar and Julia Reichert were there to film it, documenting the end of a certain American dream, along with the unemployment of more than 2,000 people — down from 6,000 in more prosperous times. That was [...]

  • 'Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project': Truth-Teller

    Tribeca Film Review: 'Recorder: The Marion Stokes Project'

    VHS tapes now have a weird sort of stodgy magical aura. Long ago, they were standard. With the arrival of DVD, they were behind the curve. Then they were totally outdated and unworkable (at a certain point, who besides Quentin Tarantino still had an operational VCR?). But now they’re so old they’re like mystic electromagnetic [...]

  • PLAYA VISTA, CALIFORNIA - APRIL 24:

    Shorts Encourage Women to STEAM Careers

    Straight Up Films created the anthology “Power/On” of five shorts focused on encouraging girls in STEAM (science, technology, engineering and math with the arts thrown in) directed by actresses Rosario Dawson, Julie Bowen, Ana Brenda Contreras, Lisa Edelstein, and Nikki Reed. With support from YouTube, the shorts premiered Wednesday at the Google campus in Playa [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content