The past few months have seen a surge in high-profile persons, including Nobel Prize-winning economists, calling to end the global ‘War on Drugs’, especially in the US. With marijuana decriminalisation laws and promises to curb high incarceration numbers, it is easy to forget the daily savagery that exists in neighbouring Mexico. Heli is a tragic story of the perils of innocence in an uncompromising world of cartel violence, made poignant by an agonisingly long scene of genital burning that underscores the theme of physical and political impotency in a corrupt “land of the damned”.
Heli (Armando Espitia) is a seventeen-year-old automobile worker who lives in a cramped house with his wife, father, newborn child and younger sister, Estela (Andrea Vergara). They lead unremarkable lives until Estela’s boyfriend, Alberto (Juan Palacios), steals bags of cocaine from the federal police he trains under in order to make enough money to move away and get married. This naïve act leads to four officers who are involved with the drug cartels to come looking for the cocaine, which is hidden in the water tank on Heli’s roof. That anybody in the cartel’s way is kidnapped, tortured, raped or killed is signalled prominently in the very first shot of the film, which shows a man being publicly hanged from a bridge. Director Amat Escalante clearly speaks through an off-screen character when he demands, “Open your eyes so you don’t miss the show”, goading the audience into witnessing Mexico’s cruelty. Alongside the violence, sexual impotency dominates the film, with early scenes of Estela and Alberto fumbling in the back of a car giving way to an enraged Heli hacking at a cactus with a machete after he fails to have intercourse with his wife.
The only relief the characters can receive, no matter how temporary, is sexual. Alberto sees sex as an escape from the disgusting treatment he is subject to during training, a foreshadowing of the torture scene, whilst Heli needs it to combat his own powerless struggle against the ever-present threat of the cartels. One female officer even makes sexual advances toward Heli despite denying him assistance after the home invasion, yet this sort of reprieve is as selfish as anything the corrupt officers did, preying as they do on the vulnerable in times of widespread moral degradation.
Many critics have rightly praised the unflinching subject matter, and thankfully the film does not devolve into a lazy revenge thriller, yet Heli offers nothing new concerning the drug trade in either political or social terms that Fernando Meirelles’ City of God (2002) had not already dealt with. Instead it relies on making extreme events seem mundane. Escalante’s technique is effective, yet the shock value he relies on may seem cheap to many; the graphic scenes may also be hard to stomach for some. The prevalence of medium and long shots place the audience firmly in the seat of one of the four young boys who watch a man being attacked, akin to the gladiatorial videogame they were playing not moments before. When asked, “What did this one do?” another responds, “What does it matter?” The nihilism of a new generation is presented so simply that it is easily missed.
Perhaps Heli’s biggest flaw is what feels to be an unfinished final quarter. Plot elements are haphazardly resolved as the tension from the majority of the film evaporates with a final jarring cut to a white screen, negating the film’s previous emotional intensity. Up until this point Escalante had been successful at portraying a tragedy that avoids sentiment; perhaps less carnality and more of the psychology raised only late into the film would make this film memorable for more than just the torture scene.