By Kevin Jagernauth | The Playlist May 15, 2013 at 6:42PM
"Now you'll get to know God in the land of the damned," a military police officer threatens chillingly midway through "Heli." But this is just further confirmation of where things are going, as the movie makes it clear from the start that it's headed down a bracing path in which neither animals nor children are safe. The film opens in the back of a pickup truck, with a closeup on a boot pressed against a bloody, battered face, mouth duct taped closed, barely showing signs of life. A dead body lies adjacent, and not much is heard except the sound of the engine, as the camera slowly glides from the rear of the truck, up into the front seat, looking out on the open road, in a single, slow methodical shot. The truck stops, the bodies are hauled out, and one is then hanged from a pedestrian overpass that crosses the road. Welcome to "Heli."
Divided into roughly two halves, the third feature from director Amat Escalante (it's his second entry at Cannes, his first in Competition) uses the first section to establish the players, via a fractured narrative that effectively highlights how disparate these connected lives are. The titular Heli (whose details we learn through a rather clever device of having a census bureau worker drop by his home) -- a high school-educated factory worker, with one child, living with his sister, father and wife -- actually takes a bit of backseat as the story focuses on his 12 year-old sibling Estella, who has fallen into a relationship with 17 year-old Beto. He's training to be a police officer, but is already hatching plans to make things more permanent with Estella. This leads to a fateful decision, which opens the second half of the movie with some shocking violence, that re-positions the deck, putting Heli back in focus.
Though it's not a movie that can be spoiled, traditionally speaking, much of its dramatic oomph comes from the often unexpected blunt impact of both the violent and surreal moments that populate the film. Set against the backdrop of the drug war in Mexico, the thematic undercurrent -- that corruption runs like an oil slick, poisoning everything in its path (particularly the innocent) -- is punctuated by a central, disturbing set piece that will likely spur many conversations. An extended torture sequence, featuring both beatings and mutilation, is made all the more powerful by the imagery around it. Children sit idly by, pausing their video game to watch this brutal display of violence."What did this one do?" one kid asks, underlining with some severe gravity, this isn't the first time he's been witness to this kind of behaviour. Meanwhile, a woman prepares a meal in the kitchen a couple rooms over, glancing with mild curiosity at the man in the living room hung from a hook in the ceiling, nearly completely stripped.
Escalante will undoubtedly draw comparisons to Michael Haneke, for his clinical approach, emphasis on long takes and at times enigmatic structure, and will likely be criticized just as much for what could be perceived as an uncaring, unsympathetic assessment of his own characters. Nearly everyone in the film eventually becomes faced with some kind of harsh trauma, which is understandable given the conceptual premise of the movie, but Escalante strains to make them relatable. Particularly as the movie heads into the third act, Heli veers toward being unlikable, just as we should be seeing the devastation he experiences through his eyes. Escalante, it seems, wants all of his characters unvarnished, which is admirable, but it comes at the expense of making a movie that while eye-opening, doesn't emotionally resonate. Moreover, some subtext -- particularly a running thread about the link between sexuality, sexual frustration and violence -- are left undercooked.
Indeed, much of "Heli" finds the audience seeing what happens, instead of experiencing what happens, and that's the result of keeping these characters at an arms length. But that distance is beautifully lensed by cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman who works with Escalante to create one startlingly composed shot after another, with the camera acting as its own witness (with damned good eye for framing) to the horrors that eventually unfold. You can't look away, and that's both because the story is so deliberately riveting, and simply because you might miss the next great shot. (And it should be said, Hagerman introduces hand held shots at moments so seamlessly, and with such little fanfare, one hopes more filmmakers can realize that the technique doesn't have to feel like you're rattling around inside the lens).
Moments of humor and surrealism (Heli's wife visiting a palm reader randomly sees a drumkit and a man wearing wild cowboy boots at the edges of the scene) at least partially give the audience a break, but by and large, "Heli" is a despairing, bleak watch. It's a slow, but unrelenting look at one young man's punishing loss of innocence amongst a society that has already decayed beyond understanding. There is not much optimism in the view held by Escalante, who in the film's gorgeous closing scene (with drapes blowing in the breeze with far more purpose than in "The Great Gatsby"), offers the notion that any hope of moral and spiritual recovery lies in the next generation who is already irreparably damaged, and perhaps forever lost. [B-]