Click to Skip Ad
Closing in...
Harvey Weinstein Says Quentin Tarantino Has Changed The Last Chapter Of 'The Hateful Eight' Harvey Weinstein Says Quentin Tarantino Has Changed The Last Chapter Of 'The Hateful Eight' Sundance Review: ‘Slow West’ Starring Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee & Ben Mendelsohn Sundance Review: ‘Slow West’ Starring Michael Fassbender, Kodi Smit-McPhee & Ben Mendelsohn Sundance: Keanu Reeves Opens The Door To Trouble In Teaser Trailer For Eli Roth's 'Knock Knock' Sundance: Keanu Reeves Opens The Door To Trouble In Teaser Trailer For Eli Roth's 'Knock Knock' Watch: 8-Minute Video Essay Argues Steve McQueen's 'Shame' Is Actually A Critique Of The Modern Metropolis Watch: 8-Minute Video Essay Argues Steve McQueen's 'Shame' Is Actually A Critique Of The Modern Metropolis Watch: The Tampon Scene From 'Fifty Shades Of Grey' You Won't See In The Movie Recreated With 'The Sims' Watch: The Tampon Scene From 'Fifty Shades Of Grey' You Won't See In The Movie Recreated With 'The Sims' 'Death Proof' Star Zoe Bell Leads Latest Additions To Quentin Tarantino's 'Hateful Eight' As Filming Begins 'Death Proof' Star Zoe Bell Leads Latest Additions To Quentin Tarantino's 'Hateful Eight' As Filming Begins Ranked From Best To Worst: Every Sundance Dramatic Grand Jury Prize Winner Ranked From Best To Worst: Every Sundance Dramatic Grand Jury Prize Winner Watch: 'Saturday Night Live' Sketch 'Fanatic' Written & Directed By Paul Thomas Anderson And Starring Ben Affleck Watch: 'Saturday Night Live' Sketch 'Fanatic' Written & Directed By Paul Thomas Anderson And Starring Ben Affleck The 10 Best Films Of 2003 The 10 Best Films Of 2003 The 10 Best Films Of 2002 The 10 Best Films Of 2002 Check Out These Minimalist, Old School Paperback-Style Posters For The Films Of Wes Anderson Check Out These Minimalist, Old School Paperback-Style Posters For The Films Of Wes Anderson First Look: Leonardo DiCaprio Gets Grimy In Alejandro González Iñárritu's 'The Revenant' First Look: Leonardo DiCaprio Gets Grimy In Alejandro González Iñárritu's 'The Revenant' The 30 Most Anticipated Movies Of The 2015 Sundance Film Festival The 30 Most Anticipated Movies Of The 2015 Sundance Film Festival 2015 Oscar Nominees Get The Honest Poster Treatment 2015 Oscar Nominees Get The Honest Poster Treatment "Carry Bolt Cutters Everywhere": Werner Herzog Has 24 Amazing Pieces Of Advice "Carry Bolt Cutters Everywhere": Werner Herzog Has 24 Amazing Pieces Of Advice The 25 Best Horror Films Of The 21st Century So Far The 25 Best Horror Films Of The 21st Century So Far Watch: 3 Graphic, Very NSFW Clips From Lars von Trier's 'Nymphomaniac Vol II — Director's Cut' Watch: 3 Graphic, Very NSFW Clips From Lars von Trier's 'Nymphomaniac Vol II — Director's Cut' The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season The 20 Best TV Shows Of The 2013/2014 Season From Worst To Best: Ranking The Films Of Hayao Miyazaki From Worst To Best: Ranking The Films Of Hayao Miyazaki Christopher Nolan Says His Howard Hughes Film Is Dead, But He'd Still Like To Do A Bond Film At Some Point Christopher Nolan Says His Howard Hughes Film Is Dead, But He'd Still Like To Do A Bond Film At Some Point

Cannes Review: 'Heli' A Beautifully Shot But Despairing Look At Corrupted Lives

Photo of Kevin Jagernauth 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."
5
Heli

"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.

Heli

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.

HELI BY AMAT ESCALANTE

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-]

This article is related to: Heli, Cannes Film Festival, Reviews, Review, Amat Escalante


The Playlist

The obsessives' guide to contemporary cinema via film discussion, news, reviews, features, nostalgia, movie music, soundtracks, DVDs and more.


E-Mail Updates