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Feeling almost like a guilty apology for the Gatsby-themed orgy of ostentatious glamor that opened the Cannes Film Festival, the first of this year’s official Competition contenders is an austere glumfest of stomach-churning sadism and lowlife misery porn. Back in Cannes for the third time after winning acclaim and prizes with Sangre and Los Bastardos, the young writer-director Amat Escalante returns to his home state of Guanajuato in central Mexico to shoot this art-house thriller about the social and emotional cost of violent crime. Heli is undoubtedly made with serious intent, but it is also relentlessly depressing and curiously uninvolving, with limited audience appeal beyond the film-festival bubble.
Heading up an almost entirely non-professional cast, Armando Espitio plays Heli, a young father and auto factory worker whose 12-year-old sister Estela (Andrea Vergara) unwittingly drags him into tragic conflict with the local paramilitary police, cocaine traffickers and their brutal underage enforcers. Painting a detached portrait of bleak lives in elemental landscapes, Escalante is clearly a stylistic disciple of both Robert Bresson and his own co-producer, fellow Cannes regular Carlos Reygadas. However, he lacks the formal rigor, sardonic humor and transcendent spirituality of both.
Escalante grabs our attention with a powerful single-shot opening sequence featuring a grisly public lynching, then loops back into domestic drama. The context for this atrocity is finally explained in the film’s mid-section, which involves a home invasion, a fatal shooting, a triple abduction and an extended torture sequence. This descent into casual savagery unfolds largely in real time, with a matter-of-fact blankness that makes it all the more disturbing. The cinematic lineage here is less Bresson or Reygadas than Michael Haneke circa Funny Games.
With cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman favoring long, slow tracking shots that highlight the sun-parched majesty of the region’s mountainous landscape, Heli has a painterly beauty that belies its dark subject matter. Escalante’s stated aim is to expose the everyday horror of real-life crime in Mexico’s more lawless regions, where lynchings and beheadings are routine underworld punishments. He certainly depicts the Mexican justice system as hopelessly corrupt and powerless, with one detective even demanding low-level sexual favors from Heli in return for co-operation.
But the film’s emotional and psychological threads resolve themselves less convincingly. Heli initially suffers post-traumatic stress that wrecks his job and threatens his marriage, then commits a reckless act of revenge that feels too rushed and open-ended to balance the carnage that has gone before. Escalante is working with very strong dramatic material here, but he never quite shapes it into an engrossing narrative. The abrupt ending is clearly a stylistic statement, but it feels like an evasion.
Production companies: Mantarraya, Tres Tunas
Producer: Jaime Romandia
Director: Amat Escalante
Starring: Armando Espitia, Andrea Vergara, Linda Gonzalez, Juan Eduardo Palacios
Writers: Amat Escalante, Gabriel Reyes
Editor: Natalia Lopez
Cinematographer: Lorenzo Hagerman
Sales company: Mantarraya
Unrated, 105 minutes
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