By Daniel Barnes
*Opening today at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco.
The term “Southern miserablism” has been bandied about lately in film culture as a way of describing films like Mud and Joe, movies that roll around in a fetid atmosphere of Deep South suffering and abuse. Amat Escalante’s unforgiving and largely unrewarding Heli, which won Best Director at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival, is a grueling exercise in a new-fangled sort of “Mexican miserablism.” It unfolds as slowly and bleakly and cruelly as possible in an unnamed Mexican pit of hell, as a modern-day Romeo and Juliet story unexpectedly thrusts a working-class family into the drug war.
Heli is largely shot in a sickly gray-green hue, and while pitiless violence and a bleak tone hardly feel out of place in a story of Mexican drug cartels, the film also has a somewhat self-righteous lack of personality. Even worse, Escalante’s film is just as likely to wallow in festival circuit clichés as it is scenes of graphic genital torture and dog murder. Long, slow, static driving and bike-riding scenes are one of the favored overused time-fillers here. Escalante also defiantly disavows any notions of character-building – all we ever know about the titular protagonist is that he is quiet and determined and loves his family; about the rest of the characters, we learn even less.
The movie opens on a lengthy shot of Heli riding unconscious in the back of a truck cab with duct tape over his mouth and a boot pressed against his head. When they finally arrive at their location, Heli is pulled from the truck and seemingly hanged from a bridge with his pants pulled down around his ankles. From there, Heli circles back to the events leading up to that dehumanizing moment of wanton butchery, and that’s when things really start to get ugly.
On the fringes of all this sadistic navel-gazing, Escalante paints an interesting portrait of the drug war, with cartels and paramilitary groups and police officers seemingly indistinguishable in their corruption. There are also a handful of strange and disturbing images that have imprinted in my mind, and I liked how the movie gradually coalesced from random slices of life into an urgent narrative, but overall it’s too gratuitous in every direction. In one scene, a young cadet is forced by his superiors to roll around in his own puke, ostensibly in the name of personal betterment, and Escalante forces that same level of it’s-good-for-you torment on his audience.