One of the most exciting things about attending the Cannes Film Festival is being among the first people to see the films the world will be talking about. That’s one of the terrible things, too: There’s no one to warn you when you’re about to see a puppy murder, a 12-year-old girl borne away toward rape and misery, or a penis doused with lighter fluid and set ablaze.
All three of those things happen in Amat Escalante’s Heli, a family drama set against Mexico’s drug wars. Heli, which is screening in competition, is harrowing; it almost qualifies as what I call Cinema of Punishment, pictures that go overboard in showing us exactly how bad things can get for people who aren’t us.
But even though Escalante, in his third feature, refuses to spare us—that penis-on-fire moment seemingly goes on forever—he’s striving for emotional meaning rather than just scoring points off our discomfort, and that makes all the difference. The despair and desperation of the movie’s young protagonist (played by Armando Espitia) are believably human responses to horrific events, and Escalante keeps that in focus. I’m not sorry I saw Heli, but the squeamish should know what they’re in for.