Much of Heli takes place in a tiny desert town in rural Mexico so small and shabby, the entire population barely cracks three digits. Among its inhabitants is Heli (Armando Espitia), a dutiful young man who lives in a ramshackle home with his wife (Linda Gonzalez), their infant son, his 12-year-old sister Estela (Andrea Vergara) and his father.
Heli works on the assembly line of an auto factory — he rides a rickety bike to and from his job — and although his living conditions are miserable by Western standards, he seems satisfied and content with his marriage and family. He isn’t aware, though, that Estela has started dating an older boy, the 17-year-old Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios) who is going through boot camp before entering the military and is pressing his baby-faced girlfriend for sex. She rebuffs him, so he asks her to marry him and elope to the big city, where they can lead more-comfortable lives.
Amat Escalante, who won the Best Director trophy for Heli at last year’s Cannes Film Festival (Steven Spielberg headed the jury), likes to frame his characters in long shots against the vast expanses of the deserted patch of land they inhabit, emphasizing their loneliness and fringe status. One night, after Heli’s peaceful life has been upended through no fault of his own, he stares up at the sky, and the stars seem to stare back, uncaring and impassive. His insignificance is celestial. Nobody cares.
Escalante ( Sangre, Los bastardos) was born in Spain and grew up in Mexico, where the drug wars have taken a massive, deadly toll. The plot of Heli is kick-started when Beto steals a few packages of cocaine from the hideout of a cop who skimmed them from a bust. Beto intends to sell the drugs and use the money to leave town and start a life with Estela. But he’s too naive and too young to understand the repercussions that come when you dare to mess with narco traffickers in cahoots with the authorities.
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The blowback is swift, astonishing, brutal, unthinkable. Escalante doesn’t cut away from violence, but he’s not gunning for cheap shocks. He wants you to see it, confront it, show you how the feeling of invincibility and immunity from the law frees the worst instincts in some people. These criminals are barely human: They’re sadistic demons disguised in flesh and blood.
Heli’s most harrowing scene takes place in a clean, white-tiled apartment where a group of young men are playing video games on their flatscreen TV, their mother puttering in the kitchen in the background, and a pair of thugs come in with two prisoners and begin to torture them.
The kids sit on the couch and watch passively, as if they were at the movies, while we recoil and look away in horror. A couple of them even decide to take part in the ghastly fun. Heli is not exploitative or needlessly violent, but there are a few scenes that are so disturbing and realistic, the squeamish (and dog lovers) should brace themselves for sights that cannot be unseen.
Escalante is a disciple of Carlos Reygadas ( Silent Light, Post Tenebras Lux), but although he doesn’t share that director’s fondness for slow-motion pacing, he does keep his characters at an emotional distance, so the great tragedies that befall them never feel manipulative or melodramatic (one of the worst atrocities in the picture thankfully takes place off-screen). The cool, remote tone also helps make Heli’s loss of innocence and its consequences more credible.
By film’s end, everyone has been transformed for the worst. Heli is a troubling and upsetting picture, a portrait of a broken country that seems to be beyond repair and a depiction of how violence and corruption, when left unchecked, taints saints and sinners alike, sparing no one.