Recently I saw Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, a thriller about a US law enforcement officer’s attempt to break a Mexican drug cartel. The film is terrific, one of this year’s best, and I will tell you more about it nearer its release in a month or so. Sicario is full of suspense, and has the resources and hardware one would expect of a big budget American film, watching it I was reminded of a number of movies, from Zero Dark Thirty to Heat to the Brazilian Elite Squad films. One film that I did not expect to be reminded of was Amat Escalante’s Heli, one of the most brutally depressing and un-Hollywood films I’ve seen in the last few years. So in advance of Sicario’s release, here is my review of Heli from a few year’s back.
At the time of writing (in 2013) the short synopsis for this tough Mexican drama on IMDB was hilariously misleading: ‘Love story between a young girl and a policeman, both of them had connections with drugs but in opposite ways. This will create a conflict that love will try to overcome.’ This makes it sound as if Heli is a date movie for art house fans. Trust me it really isn’t. In fact I would go so far as to call this the winner of the award for the most depressing drama of 2013, and I saw it in February.
Far from being some sort of drug cartel Romeo and Juliet, Heli is an uncompromising and brutal drama exploring the psychological effects of torture and brutality on an ordinary man. Heli (Espitia) is a young father who works in a car plant to support his family which includes father, wife, baby and younger sister. It is a simple, almost mundane existence and seems a relatively contented one apart from Heli’s wife being unable or unwilling to be intimate following the birth of their child. Matters are compounded by his younger sister’s (a striking performance from the disconcertingly childlike Vergara) relationship with a police cadet who unwisely steals some seized cocaine and stashes it in the family’s water tank. Of course, the people from whom the drugs have been taken want it back, and this leads to a barrage of unpleasantness.
The tone of this film is forcefully set by its opening image of a boot on a bloody human face. This is not in any way a genre film; there are no thriller elements, no suspense. The antagonists are faceless and devoid of character. Escalante keeps the focus of the film on Heli and his family, caught up in hideous violence they barely comprehend. There are grim scenes of sadism, but the director has no desire to tease any possibility of a cathartic release of revenge.
Escalante has worked as an assistant director for Carlos Reygadas (Battle in Heaven, Post Tenebras Lux) and is equally committed to raw and unsparing imagery. Heli is a very well shot film, with striking compositions and camera moves – a case in point, the opening is stunning, a fluid tracking shot from bloody bodies lying in the back of a pickup that moves into the driver’s seat to immerse the audience in a world of unsparing cruelty – however none of it is aesthetically pretty. This is commendable, but Escalante overplays his hand and ultimately the relentlessness of the film’s imagery is deadening and depressing. Like Reygadas, Escalante is unsparing to his actors, often photographing them in the most unflattering ways. In one scene, a police cadet is forced by superiors to roll through his own vomit before having his head shoved into an open latrine. That is what watching this film often feels like.
The numbing effect of the imagery is accentuated by a failure to get under the skin of the characters. I never really felt like I knew what Heli was feeling (beyond physical and spiritual pain); this made the drama feel distant and uninvolving. Because the focus is on the victims, there is no examination of the forces and corruption that make such an environment. Matteo Garrone’s Gomorra was no less depressing a vision of corruption and vice, but that film had a scope that is completely lacking here. Gomorra felt like it had something to say, that it was offering an insight into a world and confronting the audience. It is too easy to switch off and disengage during Heli. Perhaps realising this Escalante includes several scenes of violence being meted out to animals. This is often a cheap tactic used in horror films and thrillers to shock an audience. I didn’t feel that was the case here – rather it was an additional expression of the cruelty of the environment – but it is telling that it has drawn comment when the scenes of violence against humans are far more extreme. I should also say that it appeared quite clear to me that the scenes with animals were simulated and the effects created with editing and sound, I don’t believe there is any actual ‘animal cruelty’ shown onscreen.
As an example of film making technique Heli is impressive, but it is a film I never want to see again and one I find it impossible to recommend.
This review was previously published on the late Chris and Phil Presents website (am I the kiss of death for film sites?)