Genre: Crime, Drama
Directed by: Amat Escalante
Starring: Armando Espitia, Andrea Vergara, Juan Eduardo Palacios, Linda Gonzalez
Much has been made of the graphic torture scene in Heli, Amat Escalante’s Mexican crime drama. Coming under fire for several minutes of unflinching footage, word of walkouts have been doing the rounds. In the end, it’s this centrepiece sequence that emerges as the most powerful for better and worse; both a towering achievement and a moment of overreach that marks a steep decline. For Heli’s very personal story of the impact drugs and violence has on normal life in Mexico builds steadily before collapsing into a confused conclusion.
That violence is a reality of life in Heli’s (Armando Espitia) world is made clear right from the start. The film opens with a gang of unknown men in a pick-up taking two battered bodies into a small town where one is promptly hanged from a pedestrian bridge. Escalante’s languorous style, revelling in fluid long takes, paints this as a remarkably straightforward occurrence, a fact that’s arguably more harrowing than the act itself. It’s a brusque opening that sets down a clear marker for what’s to follow.
Stepping back in time, Escalante introduces Heli, a young man who lives with his wife Sabrina (Linda González) and their baby, his father and his 13 year old sister Estela (Andrea Vergara). He works the night shift in a nearby car factory to make ends meet, passing his father who works days on the way in. Theirs is a hard but not unique life. Like countless others, they do what is required to get by.
It’s Estela’s 17 year old boyfriend Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios), a military cadet significantly older than she, who brings the spark that initially lights up, and then explodes this routine existence. He’s a braggart, boasting of secret techniques the army has taught him and lifting her to demonstrate his strength, but there’s tenderness in his relationship with Estela that belies an unsettling age gap and his repeated pleading for sex.
How this situation might have resolved itself becomes a moot point when Beto stumbles across two bags of cocaine and hides them in Heli’s water tank before he can sell them and move away with Estela to presumably live a life of illicitly funded luxury. Of course, nothing is that simple and soon the door is being kicked down by trigger happy men in military outfits wreaking a vengeance no one wants to be on the receiving end of.
Cue the standout sequence as Beto, Heli and Estela are herded off in the dark before the young men are dragged into a normal domestic environment and casually tortured. It’s the mundanity of it all that’s most terrifying. While their captors set to work, a group of kids sit on the sofa spectating, their video game halted. One of them even films events on his phone while another readily agrees to join in. Watching an admittedly foolish but ultimately harmless young man strung up, beaten with a wooden paddle, doused in lighter fluid and set ablaze is all the more painful given the setting. It suggests the depressing regularity with which events like this occur, and the lack of innocence in an upbringing that exposes and actively promotes involvement in such horrific crimes.
For all the graphic immediacy of this sequence, violence remains a rarely used tool in Heli. Instead, the build-up is focussed on the social dimension of Heli’s life as a convincing picture of his day-to-day challenges is drawn. Heli, himself barely older than Beto, is tired and worn down while his wife, alienated from her family after moving away to live with Heli, is unhappy and sexually disinterested. By providing space for his characters to breathe, they begin to develop into compelling figures.
Sadly, this good work is wasted in the final act. The explosive high that comes from their capture cannot be attained again. Instead, the narrative falls between an exploration of the powerless situation Mexican citizens find themselves in and a revenge thriller where Heli steps up to avenge Estela. A series of half formed ideas are thrown into the mix and then promptly ignored, dragging out an ending that always seems to be right around the corner. There are disinterested cops, a callous employer, a fraught home life, underage sex, rape and pregnancy to name but a few. The result is a baggy conclusion that fritters away the strong start.
Escalante isn’t helped by his insistence on never changing long takes and untested actors. While he structures several impressive shots, the lack of variety in the pace is felt acutely as Heli stumbles towards the end. His reliance on newcomers also weakens the film. Espitia and González generally succeed in bringing out a combination of vulnerability and fiery frustration but Palacios in particular struggles to display the range required for his role. He remains a bland figure in what should be the most flamboyant role.
Heli exhibits visual flair and pretty backdrops allied with socially literature character development and a frank look at the darker side of drug afflicted modern Mexico. It’s a shame it’s beset by a host of weaknesses that see a promising start peter out until all that’s left is a vague feeling that somewhere along the line an opportunity has been missed.