When a film opens up with the matter-of-fact execution of a man by hanging him from a bridge, you know you're not in for a pleasant ride. Violence abounds in Amat Escalante's third feature Heli, under the production wings of his better-known countryman Carlos Reygadas, himself a Best Director winner for the very divisive Post Tenebras Lux last year. His younger protégé may have delivered something that will divide Cannes audiences just as much. This starkly nihilistic portrait of life in a Mexico overrun by escalating drug violence is at times intense and a good document of a country on the brink of hell, but at some stage you may ask yourself: is there a point to this?
The first two-thirds of the film are a long flashback detailing how the above-mentioned execution came to be. It tells the story of Heli (Armando Espitia) and his extended family, consisting of a wife (Linda González), a young son, a father, and Heli's 12-year old sister Estela (Andrea Vergara). The sister strikes up a relationship with the older Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios), a police cadet in training. The latter decides to steal two packages of cocaine that were supposed to be destroyed, in hope of starting a life together. Heli discovers the packages and tries to dispose of them, and shortly after that his life hits a rapidly descending path of violence as a victim of Mexico's ever-increasing drug wars, as he, his sister and Beto are handed over to a drug gang by what seem to be police officials. And, oh my, is the violence then shown in all its gory glory, and without much relief to boot, in an extended scene of torture that includes, among other things, genital mutilation by fire. It must be said, though, for all the talk of extreme violence that already had the festival abuzz, most of it is contained in this one sequence. Maybe a good moment for a bathroom break if people ever decide to give it a try.
Beto meets his fate under the bridge, but Heli gets off with just a fierce beating, and is returned home shortly after. The sister, whose ordeals we see nothing of, returns as well, and after what seems to be a reconciliatory talk with two still unpleasant police officers, it looks as if Heli's life is going to get back on track again.
This brings us to the earlier question: is there a point in all of this? What the film clearly shows is how desensitized all involved are to the violence, whether it's the perpetrators, the victims, or bystanders. It has become a normal part of everyday life, and perhaps this is where the hope lies for Heli and his family. You have to wonder, though, how easily one could brush off an experience like that. But the film seems to imply Heli and Estela will simply take this as an unfortunate incident, and move on with their lives. The subject isn't exactly some unknown atrocity in a small corner of the world (Mexico's drug violence is well documented), yet an opportunity to show what effect a society gone wildly astray has on its people is never to be missed. Looking away from the violence does not actually make it go away, which is why the criticism about the violence in the film is perhaps a bit flawed. Feeling like being hit over the head with it is a fairer criticism, but Escalante feels the need to preach his message (without getting preachy, mind you) as much as he can, as demonstrated by his previous two outings, which also dealt with the subject of people getting swallowed up by society. The problem is that Escalante does not provide even a hint of a solution for the issue, and his modus operandi of matter-of-factly showing becomes nothing more than a starting point for discussion. Never a bad place for a film to be in, but a little more insight might have lifted this film above average.