“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.