DVD Review: ‘Heli’

The third film from Mexican director Amat Escalante (Los Bastardos, Sangre), Heli (2013) could perhaps be accused of following the shoulder-shrug school of social commentary. An at times almost-unspeakably brutal portrayal of one young family caught up in a cocaine deal gone wrong, Escalante’s Cannes prize-winner offers little respite for its titular factory worker, who finds himself horrifically tortured for his unwitting role in the theft of several parcels of prime marching powder. Neither does the filmmaker offer any fresh optimism for his country’s future, torn apart as it is by corruption, gang violence and narcotics. And yet, Escalante still manages to evoke beauty through some exemplary visuals.

Heli (Armando Espitia) lives a simple existence in a small house with father Evaristo (Ramón Álvarez), wife Sabrina (Linda González), his baby son and 12-year-old sister, Estela (Andrea Vergara). Estela’s boyfriend Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios), a 17-year-old cadet on the cusp of manhood, wants nothing more than to elope with the minor and so seeks to change both of their lives by stealing a haul cocaine confiscated from one of the local drug cartels. Stashing the coke on the roof of Heli and his family’s home, Beto is eventually caught and forced into revealing the whereabouts of the stash. Unfortunately, however, Heli has already disposed of the gear, leading to Beto, Estela and himself being kidnapped by a masked death squad – possibly cops – and led out into the hills to await their fate.

From high profile indies such as Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic (2000) through to recent, more obscure efforts like Miss Bala (2011) and Days of Grace (2012), Mexico’s internal turmoil has been a source of keen interest from directors both within and without. For Escalante, Heli loosely ties together a trilogy of films that have explored key themes such as family, morality and poverty through intently personal narratives. At times almost unrelentingly harsh and suffocating, particularly during one infamous act of torture, Escalante is either unwilling to shy away from the harsh reality of 21st century life in rural Mexico or eager to shock complacent western audiences out of their privileged bubble of apathy – depending on which viewpoint you chose to subscribe to. In actuality, there is perhaps some form of truth in both of the aforementioned perspectives. Hugely pleasing from a technical standpoint (thanks to veteran cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman) whilst simultaneously punishing in terms of its bleak outlook, Heli proves a conflicting cinematic experience.

Amat Escalante’s Heli is available now on DVD and Blu-ray. To read our interview with the director, follow this link.

Daniel Green