Mexico-based director Amat Escalante’s third feature is a textbook example of festival outrage bait. It runs through a checklist of shock tactics, beginning with its opening scene, in which a bloodied, beaten man is hanged from a bridge. Escalante’s guided tour also includes logrolls through vomit; morbid exposed flesh (of a police officer attempting to seduce the man she’s supposed to help); and—right around the time viewers might hope or pray Escalante has exhausted himself—the off-screen rape of a child. The moment a fluffy puppy named Cookie is introduced, it’s clear that he’s a goner. And that’s to say nothing of Heli’s self-conscious pièce de résistance: a single take in which a teenage boy has flammable liquid doused on his genitals, which are then set on fire. As the music from a video game plays in the background, onlookers seem barely fazed.
Welcome to Cannes! The first competition film to screen for the press corps at last year’s festival, Escalante’s movie eventually netted its maker the best director award. Indeed, Heli plays like an amalgam of two of the Croisette’s recent flash points: Filipino filmmaker Brillante Mendoza’s Kinatay (2009)—essentially a feature-length buildup to the rape and mutilation of a prostitute—and Miss Bala (2011), Mexican filmmaker Gerardo Naranjo’s kinetic, astonishingly controlled look at a beauty pageant queen literally caught in the crossfire of the Tijuana drug trade. Heli isn’t shy about telegraphing its state-of-the-nation message; the title character (Armando Espitia) is introduced describing his life to a census taker. Heli lives with his wife (Linda González), baby, father (Ramón Álvarez), and young sister (Andrea Vergara). The girl thinks she’s in love with a 17-year-old cadet (Juan Eduardo Palacios), who steals two packages of cocaine after a giant bust is staged for show. This action lands him, and all the others, in a burning situation.
Heli’s only joke is to leave a gap in the last letter of its title. The movie’s vision of modern Mexico as an inferno of cartels and corrupt cops—where violence is the only form of justice and evil is inevitably visited on civilians, who know instinctively to avoid messing with either the drug dealers or law enforcement—might have come as a revelation before Naranjo’s film, which covered similar terrain. The prize at Cannes makes some sense; Escalante builds an encroaching sense of dread through precise, carefully staged long takes, and the final grace note—in which the movie may or may not turn its gaze toward heaven—hints at more subtlety than the rest of the film can muster. It’s one of the few moments when Heli seems to have something on its mind other than confrontation tactics and bludgeoning, sometimes-facile social commentary. Yet the movie maintains a relentless grip all the same. Unlike the junior kingpins who bear witness to the film’s big blaze, audiences won’t watch in a passive state.