The first thing anyone is sure to notice in Amat Escalante‘s Heli is Lorenzo Hagerman‘s cinematography. The film opens with the sole of a boot pressed against a young man’s face as he is bleeding, bound, gagged and lay flat on the bed of a moving truck. Next to him is another young man whose face we cannot see. All we hear is the creaking of the truck as it rolls down a dirt round in an unspecified Mexican town.
All in one shot, the camera slowly pans up and moves into the cab of the truck as the sun beams in over the horizon. It’s a beautiful shot and I couldn’t help but be reminded of how film limits our knowledge of what’s going on based on what we see. Only minutes earlier we were looking at a grisly scene and now, through the front window, the scene appears as innocent as anything else. Innocence as it turns out, is at the heart of this film as the fate of the two boys, and many other young children in Mexico like them, are to become the story of Heli.
The film follows the life of its title character, Heli (Armando Espitia), a 17-year-old living with his wife (Linda Gonzalez), young son, father and 12-year-old sister Estela (Andrea Vergara).
Like his father, Heli works at the local automobile plant and dropped out of school to support his family. One night, after returning home from his night shift, Estela is still up at 1 AM doing her homework. After telling Heli what she’s working on he says, “I don’t remember any of that.” To which she replies, “I probably won’t either when I’m your age.” The audience chuckles, but little do we know how clairvoyant young Estela is. The five years that separate the two may as well be 20.
As it turns out, Estela is already attempting to grow up too fast. Her boyfriend (Juan Eduardo Palacios) is a police cadet determined to marry her despite the five years that separate them and his plan to make sure they can do so brings violence directly to their doorstep.
The central theme running through Heli is the effect drugs and corruption in Mexico has on the younger generation and the fear that comes as a result. It’s an unflinching glimpse at a generation of children just as unable to get out of the way as they are to look away when confronted with the most egregious acts of violence.
Heli is immediate in its presentation of violence and torture. Just as one man’s genitals are doused in lighter fluid and set on fire, a group of young teens watches, recording the scene with their cell phones with straight faces. One asks, “What did this one do?” The one holding the camera replies, “I don’t know.”
The message is clear and for the most part Escalante, working with a screenplay he co-wrote with Gabriel Reyes, rarely overplays his hand, but a pair of detectives that get involved — embodying all levels of cowardice, corruption and insignificance — are paper thin and far too obvious. One scene in particular, late in the film, nearly derailing the entire thing.
In the press notes Escalante says his aim “isn’t to deliver a message” but to create atmospheres with his direction. He certainly excels at the latter, but I’d argue he’s being disingenuous with the former as this is clearly a message movie.
Heli sends a message commenting on the fear and degradation of future generations in Mexico specifically as a result of corruption and drug trafficking in underdeveloped areas. He does this quite effectively, which makes for a rather uncomfortable watch, even if what you’re watching is competently crafted.
The performances from the film’s leads are all very strong with young Andrea Vergara holding her own as the youngest of a group of newcomers. In the title role, Armando Espitia is asked to run the gamut of emotions as he becomes the embodiment of everything the film stands for and in a lot of ways you can cheer for him, but it’s also quite apparent how much his surroundings and circumstance have damaged him for life.
This isn’t a film for the faint of heart and I’d suggest it may not even be a film for me. As my audience shared a collective gasp as a dog’s neck is rung without a second thought I began to wonder how much more I could take. Escalante crated the atmosphere he desired as I slowly began to dread the fate of the characters in the film, knowing there was no way it could end happy, nor should it. He explores the limits of violence an audience is willing to take and the collective gasp I referenced above is probably exactly what he would have wanted and it wasn’t the last time it would happen.
The question, I guess, becomes just how much you’re willing to take as an audience member and how much the director expects you to endure. Is walking away from such violence giving up? Is taking action, or at the very least acknowledging it the answer? Certainly, to do nothing will only result in more.