One of the grimmest movie experiences of recent years re-examined.
If you are the sort of person who thinks that cinema should be all about escapism, then Heli is probably going to be your worst nightmare. This is deeply, relentlessly serious stuff about the worst extremes of humanity, offering little in the way of light relief – even the moments that might normally be absurdist don’t seem all that outré within the context of this story – and centring around events that are so utterly, relentlessly bleak that you will probably feel a little unclean after seeing it. When you consider that one of the more ‘wholesome’ moments is a 17-year-old trying to slip his hand up the skirt of his 12-year-old girlfriend, you know that this is not going to be fun viewing.
Of course, not all cinema has to be fun. There’s as much room for confrontation as escapism, for the horrors of life to be explored in a realistic and bleak way, and Heli is impressively raw and painful. Not, of course, enjoyable in any conventional sense, but the film undoubtedly leaves a mark on your psyche. More to the point, it’s a valid and important howl of anger about the chaos of Mexico, the drug gangs and cops who are all too often the same people, and the way this affects innocent bystanders. In Western countries, it could easily become a piece of concern-porn, watched by middle-class viewers who will be suitably appalled at the horrors that the film exposes but will then still snort a couple of lines of coke at the weekend. That doesn’t invalidate the movie; quite the opposite, in fact. Part of the story here is about poor people being screwed over by the very people who profess to care about them; that the same sort of people are made to feel even briefly uncomfortable about the lifestyle choices that enable the horrors shown here to take place is only fair.
Heli (Armando Espitia) lives with his father, sister, girlfriend and new baby (a bit of exposition that is neatly revealed when a census taker calls at his ramshackle house in the opening scenes), and works nights in the local car factory. His 12-year-old sister Estrela (Andrea Vergara) is seeing 17-year-old army cadet Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacio), who when not trying to impress her by bench-pressing her or giving her a puppy in the hope that she’ll go all the way, is engaged in boot camp training that involves him rolling in his own vomit. More to the point though, it also gives him information about where a few bundles of cocaine are stashed. While we see the authorities making a big deal about destroying seized coke, grass and bootleg CDs, it’s clear already that corruption is rife, and this is just a show for the press and the American authorities. The cops are as corrupt as anyone, just as likely to be dealers and suppliers as anyone else.
When Heli finds the packages stashed on his roof, he takes them away and empties them into a pond, in an effort to stop his family – and his sister in general – from getting caught up in the drug trade. It’s too late though, as his house is raided by special forces police. Or perhaps drug gang members dressed as special forces police. Or most likely, both. His father is shot dead, and the rest of the family (minus his girlfriend and daughter, away from home) together with Beto are bundled into vans and driven away. Estrela is spirited away – we don’t see where, but can guess it’s not going to be any place a 12-year-old girl should be – and Heli and Beto are taken to a house, where they are beaten and tortured by the drug dealers and the bored kids who are presumably family members, reluctantly tearing themselves away from video games and TV to administer a beating with a cricket bat.
Now, you might think you’ve seen torture scenes before. I did too. But this is something else. For one thing, it’s so matter-of-fact in its brutality. The beatings are done without any sense of sadistic glee. This is work for these guys. There are no cutaways, no music – just the relentless beating that is numbingly horrible. And then at one point, Beto has his trousers pulled down, lighter fluid splashed on his genitals and is then set on fire. It’s honestly one of the most shocking things I’ve ever seen in a movie, not only because of the casual sadism involved but because it’s so horribly realistic. You wonder just how the hell this scene was achieved – through CGI, I dearly hope – because it looks utterly authentic. But then, this is the hallmark of this film. There are moments of violence that are shot so unflinchingly and realistically, that any sense of cinema is lost. When you see the severed heads shown on a news report or the person casually tossed over the side of a bridge with a noose around his neck, there is no point where it looks like film artifice.
Of course, there is plenty of video evidence out there showing what Mexican drug gangs are capable of in real life, so this film has a lot to take its visual palate from. Knowing that the violence here is staged makes it no less difficult to watch. None of this is at all gratuitous, but it’s all pretty horrible. And if you are one of those people who can take violence against other humans but struggles with (staged) scenes where animals are killed, this is definitely not the film for you – dogs have a terrible time of it here.
The final act of the film sees Heli – left alive by the gang for reasons unknown – trying to come to terms with everything that has happened, his sense of self, his trust, his job and his family all slipping away. The authorities seem uninterested in finding the drug gangs, and corruption in the police and the courts makes it a pointless exercise anyway. Instead, they too seek to use and abuse Heli. Eventually, he sets out to get his own retribution, but this is no Death Wish – there is no sense of redemption to be had here.
Heli’s problem – if you want to look at it like that – is that is doesn’t quite fit into easy categories. Not only is it deeply uncomfortable, even in its non-violent moments (after all, isn’t the idea of a 17-year-old army cadet going out with a 12-year-old decidedly creepy in any normal circumstance? The fact that it is seen as acceptable in this culture itself speaks of inherent, ingrained corruption) but the film makes no attempt to entertain or gratify. Had this been a horror film, it might be more highly regarded and remembered – for a film made in 2013, this has slipped out of the public conscience in a way that equally disturbing and upsetting productions like A Serbian Film haven’t. It is, perhaps, simply too relentlessly unpleasant even for sensation-seeking audiences. Shot in a simple, no-frills style with long takes and no distractions by Amat Escalante, Heli is as depressing a film as you could want to see. It’s also rather brilliant, a work of genuine integrity and anger that you should certainly make every effort to see.
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