I feel bad for having such a nonchalant reaction to Heli. Amat Escalante’s grim drama-thriller clearly has an agenda – a clunky, heavy-handed one – which involves enlightening audiences in more economically developed territories on the horrors of life in the drug-flooded areas of Mexico. This is clearly why he went to such pains to depict the burning of a man’s genitals in such a realistic way, and the effect achieved in this particular instance is unsettling to say the least, partially due to its blithe delivery. But that’s also where the rest of the movie suffers.
Despite what anyone might say, Nicolas Winding Refn’s Cannes disaster Only God Forgives almost worked in a weird way because it invited viewers in on the promise of extreme violence, then sucker-punched them by presenting what they came for in such a dirge-like fashion. Heli, on the other hand, practically begs to be seen, given the exhilarating trailer which promises a much more interesting, gripping movie than what we get, as well as the disclosure of the plot’s basis in claustrophobic realities. But like Refn’s film, Heli‘s trade-off is that it makes the act of being privy to these terrors a gruelling endeavour. The only difference is that it makes no sense for it to do that.
The tone of the movie goes beyond deadpan, arguably into ennui, in its deliberately non-glamorous approach to presenting its story. This way, at least, it avoids accusations of exploitation, but so did Jia Zhangke’s A Touch of Sin, which also depicted real-life events taking place in parts of the world where news of such tragedies barely reaches beyond regional broadcast. Sin at least had interesting stories, as opposed to the predictable one presented by Heli; it was multi-layered and smart enough to channel a central theme without coming across as single-minded; and it had glacial tension surging it along, causing it to escalate like a death dance. Escalante’s movie simply plods through various visual representations of the ideas established within the first ten minutes, all without panache or even a sense of connection to the characters.
And that’s what kills it so badly. Not all of the characters are monsters, but they’re all unlikable, so it’s hard to really engage with what should be an eye-opening allegory. It’s unfortunate that a film so potentially important feels so distant; it’s not hopeful and it offers no real thoughts on the matter, except that there’s nothing anyone can do to make these folks’ lives any better. Violence breeds violence in Escalante’s Mexico, and that’s the way it goes.