So far onscreen, Mexican narcoculture has generated mostly grim documentaries, but given the carnage and the proximity, you can easily imagine the movies coming from both sides of the border: the mezzobrow hand-wringers, the trigger-joy gangster trips, the based-on-true-story crusades. What we might not have seen coming is something like Heli, a dead-eyed, lyrical art film that kicks you in the throat.
With his two previous films, Sangre (2005) and Los Bastardos (2008), Amat Escalante has been finding his way between self-conscious minimalism and ball-busting shock, and with Heli he strides ever closer to a war-zone balance, a style that dovetails poetic resonance and unblinking horror. In the meantime, he and his mentor, Carlos Reygadas, have rediscovered the totemic possibilities of the Mexican landscape, physical and social, in ways no one has since Luis Buñuel.
Escalante won best director at Cannes in 2013, probably less for his newsworthy daring than for his expressive care with visuals; Heli does not waste shots. Escalante tells you how it’s going to be with the first composition: looking down at two bludgeoned and duct-taped young men unconscious in a truck bed, boot on face, from which the camera gradually pivots up and dollies forward, into the cab, gazing through the windshield at the road and the late afternoon sun.
One of the victims is immediately lynched off a bridge and left swinging, receding in the distance as we drive away, before the film leaps backward into the mild domestic world of Heli (Armando Espitia), a twentysomething factory worker living with his disinterested young wife and baby, his aging father, and his 12-year-old sister, Estela (Andrea Vergara). The narrative, like an avalanche that begins with falling pebbles, couldn’t be simpler, foreshadowed by the innocent flipbook cartoons Heli idly finds drawn in the margins of Estela’s school textbook. Secrets explode, starting with the ungainly and barely pubertal Estela’s covert romance with Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios), a horny 17-year-old police cadet-in-training trying to deflower the girl but also content to pump up his man’s-man image in her eyes. (At the academy, he’s the goat, with his head in the outhouse pit.) Mountains of seized drugs get ceremoniously burned at press conferences, but Beto looks to impress his dimly aware señorita by stealing a junkyard stash for himself, hiding it in Heli’s rooftop water tank and thereby precipitating a rain of cartel mayhem.
The fallout, like the criminal reality, abides by no rules, and Heli has a handful of Holy Shit moments few casual American filmgoers will be prepared for. (The puppy alone could spur a few civil tort suits against the filmmakers.) Escalante masters the vibe by being both meticulously realist — he uses digital sleights of hand, as we know from Los Bastardos, but you can’t see them — and coolly observational. Heli is nothing if not a piece of controlled moviemaking. Eloquent motifs (like the view from the backseat through a car’s windshield, recurring with Kiarostamian regularity) come unannounced, and what we do not see (what happened to the steer in the water hole) ignites a nagging anxiety. Even the bravura one-shot set-pieces — like the one following Heli’s baby-carrying wife into the house post-siege, through the wreckage, and then following her back out again, all at a distance — are unemphatic but chilling. The actors are all non-pro, giving the movie a sense of reserve and disconnection that can veer into ghastly comedy: In the cartel’s threadbare torture den, a doped-up teen is lazily whacking at an unconscious victim as on the TV behind him a cartoon warrior in the video game he was playing is hung up, making the same repetitive motions.
Of course, during the lean, Cormac McCarthy-esque tale, narcoculture is barely evoked in dialogue at all. Heli slackens as it rolls on, leaning more heavily on its hero’s undeveloped psychology and marital tensions. But even as the dilemma of Estela remains barely spoken about, the characters’ numbed silence regarding the corpses, torture, and severed heads glimpsed on TV becomes the film’s own disquieting statement. Since its tour of festivals last year, Heli has been met with a measure of skepticism by American reviewers, and been slammed for its “miserablism” and tonal detachment. This suggests that critics, particularly those under 40, have either forgotten or haven’t yet learned how to watch art films — the likes of which, if they explore scorched earth with a restrained and tense voice as Heli does, have no obligation to keep things fast, light, and easy to swallow. On the contrary, the experience should be like a cold shower, blindfolded.