Amat Escalante’s Heli won him the Best Director gong at this year’s Cannes. Heli depicts a working class family thrown into the Mexican drug world, a dangerous place of police corruption and violent criminals – notably, it features a very graphic torture sequence not for the faint-hearted.
Heli lives with his wife, young child, 12-year-old sister and his father. Heli and his father work at the local car factory, working alternative shifts. Heli’s sister is dating a police cadet, Beto, the two plan to marry and run away, so when Beto spies the opportunity to steal some police-seized cocaine, which was supposed to be destroyed, he does so and stores it in the water storage on Heli’s roof. The results are unsurprisingly disastrous.
The film is undeniably violent but Escalante also manages to extract some wonderful performances from a mostly non-professional cast. The film’s pacing feels slow and deliberate, which only makes the sudden, infrequent violence more impactful and terrifying. But, those who particularly despair of cruelty to animals should probably avoid Heli, dog lovers in particular.
The film’s now infamous scene of testicle-themed-torture is very brutal and disturbing, not least because the camera refuses to avert its lens from the horror of genital mutilation, of human flesh being burned. It is a powerful and disturbing scene, particularly because it plays-out while children sit alongside, playing on their PlayStation. Those same children are then encouraged to club both kidnappees. It is a world where everyone is touched by violence and loss – the loss of loved-ones and innocence.
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Heli is certainly a gruelling watch, it’s also beautifully shot and thoroughly well paced and Escalante’s direction should be applauded, however, it doesn’t quite deliver and the film’s final 20 minutes feel over-wrought and drawn out. It’s good, but perhaps not as good as the plaudits and awards would suggest.
Heli was screened at the 57th BFI London Film Festival and its release date is TBA.