Heli, the third film from Cannes favorite Amat Escalante, is a myopic treatment of the pervasive of the Mexico of new in not so much offering a tunnel-visioned exposé of the ubiquitous. Quite the contrary, it is a microscopic view of the commonplace. A lens magnifying the molecular, with Heli, its titular character, residing at the nucleus. He wakes up one day finding himself in the indiscriminate crossfire of a drug war, unwittingly all of his own doing. His is the story if not evil unheeded, but demons invited. It is the story of fatal recoil, and backfired agency, when considering the criminal edge hardly affords an explanatory gesture for its grievance. Not when the sacred bottom line is threatened. Not when the cartels’ stranglehold of a populace with hands and tongue tied overwhelms all.
Heli, never sure-footed to begin with, is not much of a talker. He rides a bike to work, often on a flat tire. And along with his widowed father, a preadolescent sister, a resentful wife and their newborn, they get to call a shabby two-bedroom house home. Being also coworkers with his father, employment prospects are basic and confined. A humble existence in their dusty rural town, no doubt. It is a nefarious proposition, then, for him to be drawn into a fight he’d made certain he was no part of.
And yet this is how the film begins, with a flash forward of him beaten and subdued with a boot to the neck. His companion on that ride in the back of the pickup is his sister’s boyfriend, Beto. For as unlike as those two are, together they will provide the embodiment of, not so much opposites, but the variety the victimized and powerless come in. Whether it is individual citizens or entire institutions, Heli and Beto are stand-ins for more in the bigger picture.
Of the same age, and too old for Estela, is the more dashing Beto with the baby face and the gangster physique. Little wonder, then, that he—not full-on alpha but machismo-conscious—found appeal in the army as a cadet. Can’t get further than first base in the car? No problem. He uses Estela’s weight for a curling exercise to show off his strength. In his own way, he doesn’t take no for an answer, constantly refining his approach, evolving and adapting. Unlike Heli. When first introduced, his sexual overtures are shot down, and we’re not immediately privy to the reasons why. How those two men deal with the limitations of their economic prospects is treated briefly at various junctions. However, how they respond to the rejections of sexual advances is deftly interspersed with their females’ corresponding point of view, conversations that Sabrina and Estela would bond over.
Given that this is Mexico after all, the military outfit comes with the customary corruption. When they put on a show of moral grandstanding and burn packaged drugs and bootleg DVDs to a public audience, two kilos of cocaine are skimmed by the drill Sergeant. Beto catches wind of this and devises a plan to elope with Estela. Notwithstanding the humiliating hazings, Beto is motivated less by payback than entrepreneurial drive when he decides to steal the drugs.
The drugs are stolen then stashed at Estela’s on the roof, where the water tank is, to be sold later. Heli spots them but fails to see past the sexual angle. The water clogs while Sabrina showers and the drugs are discovered. Heli destroys the packets far enough as to erase all trace. Thinking the problem is buried, he turns his attention to his sister’s imminent relationship and takes her cell phone, not once acknowledging anyone else’s hand in all this.
So far so good, except it was always going to be a moot point for the cartel why the drugs disappeared. Too vengeful and aggressive for due diligence, they would correctly identify Beto as the culprit. So back to square one, the prelude to the opening scene in all its gore and mayhem. The raid claims Heli’s father’s life while wife and son are away. Heli, Estela and Beto are taken by the army on orders of the cartel and are each released to a separate fate.
Throughout, the film substitutes exposition for a visual tone, although the meager dialogue is enough to reveal the characters’ inner workings. Much of the cinematography features rural landscapes invoking palettes corresponding to the time of day. Combining this framing of its subjects against barren vistas with the opening scene conjures dread anticipation of the film’s aftermath as the miasma of its opening sequence threatens to explode at any moment thereafter. Some of those scenes have shades of Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry, in particular the tracking shots of Beto’s car.
Similar static shots comprise the majority of the film’s composition, punctuated with dynamic movement in its more troublesome moments. When it finally arrives, the violence is abrupt and uncompromising, but also brief. I won’t spoil the fun although I’m torn if the noise accompanying its infamous scene is actually diegetic (from the Nintendo Wii) or a nod to Gaspar Noe. Probably neither. It’s a humming drone, but what amplifies its horror is, again, the quiet reluctance it inhabits. You see Doña making huevos rancheros in the back as she looks on in disappointment in her offspring’s wayward thuggery, one must presume. The gang, a cartel proxy, mulls the props of putting the torture on YouTube and call one of their younger and uninitiated a faggot for not partaking firsthand in the visceral revelry.
With papa gone, Estela released by her captors speechless and pregnant, and Heli and Sabrina reacquainted in the sack again, a sense of renewal dawns on the beleaguered family in a terrific final scene. Even Heli’s payback proves a misplaced catharsis, never inflicted on the guilty parties. For Heli, this much would have to do. Still, tonally puzzling but visually stunning in stretches, Heli may leave some unsatiated and underwhelmed, and that’s a generous estimate. Escalante portrays communication breakdown as another culprit but a lifeless arrangement underrates its gravity in human relations. Lorenzo Hagerman’s cinematography holds up its end of the table, but the characterizations being as muted as the prevailing mood makes the film a misfire.