Given that Amat Escalante’s Heli takes place amid the relentless and often senseless violence of Mexico’s drug war, it’s no surprise that it features a number of difficult-to-watch scenes, in particular one that portrays the graphic torture of two of its main characters. What’s more surprising, and equally disturbing, is how Escalante’s characters live with that violence: No longer visibly fearful of it, they’ve seemingly grown numb to its threats and constant presence.
Heli (Armando Espitia) works the night shift at the same auto plant as his father. His life, like his family’s, is one of mindless routine, although his 12-year-old sister, Estela (Andrea Vergara), has found a flash of excitement in her relationship with the older Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios), who’s going through a brutal training program to join the corrupt federal police force. Estela agrees to marry Beto and run off with him once he sells two packages of cocaine he stole from his police superiors. When the officers notice the theft, though, they kidnap Beto, Estela, and also Heli, who had dumped the drugs after discovering Beto and Estela’s plan.
Heli is a film about witnessing. Escalante not only forces the audience to watch brutal acts of violence, he also emphasizes his characters’ role as onlookers: the corrupt police observing a ceremonial but meaningless burning of confiscated drugs; the young cartel henchmen who gawk as Beto and Heli are viciously tortured (“What did this one do?” one of them asks, to which the other replies, “Who knows”). Escalante’s emotional and political point through all this—namely, that Mexicans have in fact ceased to be witnesses who fight the injustices around them and turned into mindless spectators—isn’t to be taken lightly, but because the entirety of Heli has such a nihilistic temperament, its effect is muted.
In one scene, after Heli is let go by the cartel but still can’t find Estela, an older police detective half-heartedly investigating the case attempts to comfort Heli by pressing his head against her bare breasts. This by no means counts as the most startling shot in a film where a man’s penis is set on fire, but the manner in which the scene takes a seemingly casual encounter and pushes it into morally questionable territory captures the movie’s single-minded hopelessness.
Escalante repeatedly uses discomfiting images to prove his thesis that the Mexican populace is being lulled into complacency by cartels and inept government agencies, but such an approach is unremarkable in a world not lacking in art-house shock artists. Meanwhile, the bleak worldview often feels so forced that it’s emotionally unconvincing. Telling a story about innocent citizens who’re drawn into the violence of the drug wars despite their attempts to keep their heads down, Escalante lets his cynicism overcome his empathy. The film ends with a triumph of sorts, but its one that only allows Heli and his family to reset into a new, mundane routine. Around them, the violence carries on and Escalante sees no need to even pretend there’s a way of stopping it.