Barcelona-born, Mexico City-raised Amat Escalante is three for three with Cannes. His first two films, Sangre (2005) and Los Bastardos (2008) both played in the Un Certain Regard category and this year he’s graduated to the main competition with Heli, a confidently mounted but mostly unpleasant exercise in human cruelty.
I didn’t see Sangre, but Los Bastardos was interesting and mysterious enough from the start to hold your attention while it built to a shockingly and (for me) unexpectedly violent conclusion. In it, Escalante channeled a certain quiet rage as he explored the illegal immigrant experience in the United States. It was awkward at times and heavy-handed, but it made its point and it made it with flair. There is little mysterious or unexpected about Heli on the other hand. It begins with a man dressed only in his underwear being hung from a bridge overpass so you know right away unpleasant things are in store. There are no surprises, there is only the inevitable.
From immigration, Escalante turns his despairing gaze to the Mexican drug war where he focuses on a few mostly innocent souls who get caught up in it. In this case, the bad guys are the cops. One 17-year-old police trainee who must endure a program something like a paramilitary boot camp run by psychos steals a couple of bags of cocaine seized in a drug bust. He stashes the loot at the home of his 12-year-old girlfriend and when the cops torture the truth out of him, they bring violent retribution to the girl’s family.
Escalante captures all of this in a placid, observational style as the cops go about their violent business as if it’s a matter of routine. They torture their victims not because they hope to achieve results, but because that’s what they do. And that is ultimately what Escalante is saying: if you train people to be murderous thugs, they’re going to be murderous thugs no matter which side of the law they’re on.
Much of what we see is calculated to shock (I can already imagine the reviews that will focus on the poor guy who has his genitals set on fire), but mostly it’s all just kind of numbing. There are no winners in this scenario and no hope. Maybe that too is what Escalante is getting at.
Too unpleasant and nihilistic probably for a mainstream arthouse audience, Heli will be seen mostly at film festivals where it will do its job making the comfortably middle class feel as though they’ve done something by watching other people be miserable.