Directed by Amat Escalante
Heli must try and protect his young family when his 12-year-old sister inadvertently involves them in the brutal drug world. He must battle against the drug cartel that have been angered as well as the corrupt police force.
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★★★½ review by Steven Sheehan on Letterboxd
As you may or may not be aware, Heli contains some particularly awful torture scenes. The kind that will make Zero Dark Thirty look like The Life of Brian. It caused quite a stir at Cannes last year despite Amat Escalante walking away with the Best Director award.
Stories about drugs in Mexico are far from new. There have been a number of commercial and independent films exploring the trade with varying levels of success over the years. Heli is a sparse, almost nihilistic look at life for those living in the region, the likes of which are dragged into the crossfire of a problem that is savagely uncontrollable.
The first thirty minutes offer a quite languid introduction to life with Heli, a young seventeen-year-old boy living in beautifully shot barren outskirts with his wife, child, father and younger sister Estela. He works in a car production factory earning minimum wage earning just enough to cover the cost of his modest accommodation.
Estela is secretly seeing Beto, a much older military cadet and it is their relationship that changes the dynamics of Heli's world. With corruption rife amongst military ranks Beto's stupidity in stealing cocaine brings the wrath of the army onto their family. Kidnap, torture, blackmail and intimidation arrive from not only the army but the police who are supposed to be helping into the subsequent investigation.
Escalante paints a bleak picture for those unfortunate enough to be caught up in such a hideous mess not batting an eye when it comes to showing us the gruesome details. Any male watching may want to cross their legs in one fire-led scene. The opening sequence that circles back later in the film sets the tone instantly, as we watch a man strung by his neck from a bridge.
There is a naturally shot approach to how we see this damning indictment of Mexico, with stabs at political structures who reign over the country. At times it proves to be a difficult film to watch which the director no doubt fully intended to be the case. Thankfully the closing scene provides a chink of light within this cocoon of horror that the strength of family may just be enough to make sense of it all.
★★★★ review by davidehrlich on Letterboxd
i pity whomever has to work at mexico's board of tourism. as strong and brilliantly mannered as MISS BALA and POST TENEBRAS LUX, and certainly no lighter in its tone. Escalante's direction is certainly worthy of the prize it scored at Cannes, and the way in which he lets the air out of his plotting in the final 25 minutes or so is one of the most horrifying returns to status quo i can remember.
★★★★ review by Cindy T on Letterboxd
I try not to read too much about a film before I see it because it can affect my enjoyment of it. All I knew about Heli in advance of watching it was that filmmaker Amat Escalante won the Best Director award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival for the film.
In the case of Heli, I think it was a mistake not to read details about the film in advance. Specifically, I wish I had known that the film includes a graphic torture scene. Although I did not go running out of the theater during the scene like a dozen people at my screening did, I was shocked and unnerved by its seeming realness.
Heli is a film that will make you feel uncomfortable not only for the graphic violence in contains but also for the disturbing relationships it shows. The story is about a Mexican family that unintentionally becomes involved in a drug theft by corrupt police. Although the film depicts how bleak life can be in Mexico, it does have a positive message about the importance of family.
I understand why Escalante won the Best Director award at Cannes for this film. It is finely crafted storytelling. The story construction reminded me of another 2013 acclaimed film: the Coen Brothers' Inside Llewyn Davis. Both films have a circular story; they begin at the story's end and then wind back. It is an effective way of drawing an audience into a story.
★★★★★ review by BollyFolly on Letterboxd
This may be the best movie made so far about Mexico's escalating drug-trade violence. Heli won't be easy to watch for everyone, but I think it's a very relevant film. It tells the story of a 17 year-old living with his wife and his sister who ends up getting involved with brutal drug cartels. It's directed by Amat Escalante, whose earlier film called Los Bastardos was also very good. He favors a composed, stripped down aesthetic, which is most welcome. That's just one of many traits he seems to have picked up from Carlos Reygadas, the film's producer and his mentor. Let's hope he keeps making the same kinds of films.
★★★½ review by Graham Williamson on Letterboxd
This review reportedly contains sarcastic use of caps lock.
Amat Escalante's film about naive young men involved in the Mexican drug trade and the women who love them filled the "Long Static Takes of Sadistic Violence" slot in the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, and went away with a Best Director award from Steven Spielberg's jury. Perhaps he was affected by an unlikely but effective visual quote from Jurassic Park as a dinosaur-sized narco-police tank approaches the hero's house.
Or perhaps he recognised that Escalante is a very good director. One measure of his success is that, despite containing nearly everything that grates on my wires about modern arthouse cinema, I quite liked his film. There's no doubt about his ability to frame a remarkable image, or get a persuasive, seamless performance out of a non-professional cast. By now, long takes are as commercially mandated for film festival hopefuls as a "Based on the graphic novel by..." credit is for a Hollywood blockbuster, but Escalante's experiments with duration are fairly effective. I loved his driving scenes, which reminded me of Mania Akbari's slow cinema classic 20 Fingers.
Certainly the slowness is effective at draining any suspense or adrenaline from the violence, which is the correct way to present this. The central torture scene is so prolonged that some reviewers have accused Escalante of nihilism, with a Variety review in particular indicting him for having nothing to say about his native country's drug trafficking crisis beyond an exploitation of its infamously extreme violence.
I don't think this is quite fair. At the start of the film we see one of the main characters being monstrously abused (even waterboarded) during his training to become a narco-cop. Once he's on the force, he assists in a mass burning of drugs and pirated goods in front of the press at the behest of a pompous local politician. (The sly, absurd coda to this scene is the nearest the movie gets to a joke.) Heli posits that this culture of one-upping machismo and public display carries straight through to the drug cartels, which then forces the police to become even more flamboyantly savage, and on, and on. In any case, there is little dividing line between the police and the cartels at this point, and Escalante teasingly refuses to make it entirely clear whether the perpetrators of the film's signature scene of torture are cops, criminals or both.
There's a lot of good in Heli but there's a lot that feels superficial. The use of children and animals as Symbols Of Innocence grates, and the final act, while hugely different in style from what a Hollywood take on this story might be, is not different enough in incident or sentiment. And Escalante marches straight into the most exasperating trap of these festival-approved exercises in ultraviolence; a constant, sanctimonious emphasis on the SHEEP who just WATCH the HORROR on their TEEVEE and YOUTUBE and VIDEO GAMES without offering any explanation why watching - or writing, or directing - a phenomenally violent film is the morally superior path. Maybe it isn't.
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