Heli, Amat Escalante’s gritty portrait of life in rural, cartel-dominated Mexico, throws you into a pit of despair and doesn’t let up. It’s like a blistering scab that stubbornly refuses to heal. It is also suffused with moments of transcendent beauty that shine a light through the darkness. It takes a hard-hitting look at abominable, morally corroded behavior that has spread throughout the region like a virus, affecting the innocent and the criminally minded to varying degrees. And yet not a single frame makes it come across like a socially conscious war-on-drugs tract.
Which is not to say this exceptional film constituted a case of love at first sight for this reviewer. The film opens on the flatbed of a truck, where two men are bound and gagged and just lay there like a hunter’s trophy. The vehicle makes its way to a bridge, and a body is hung for all to see. “This is what you get for being a rat,” the cadaver seems to proclaim loud and clear.
A mite heavy-handed? Perhaps, but not so fast. Escalante will find his way to this moment later on. What he really wants is for you to become intimately familiar with the Silva household: breadwinner Heli (Armando Espitia); Sabrina (Linda González), his wife of less than one year; his teen baby sis Estela (Andrea Vergara); his dad, and his baby son. Not much is initially spelled out for the viewer as to how these residents of the small town of Guanajuato are related, although an early scene in which Heli reluctantly answers a census worker’s questions helps fill in the blanks.
Heli, you see, works on the assembly line at a local car factory, but just when you think Escalante is going to zero in on his protagonist, he shifts his focus to 13-year-old Estela, who’s going out with police trainee Beto (Eduardo Palacios), four year older and oh-so-horny-I-wanna-go-all-the-way hot for her. The doe-eyed schoolgirl, who still goes to bed surrounded by stuffed animals, ain’t having none of that, but secretly dreams of running away with Prince Charming and getting hitched. You know, happily ever after and all that jazz.
In fact, the title character is largely absent for most of the film’s first 40 minutes, too long for my taste. By this point, though, we’ve gotten very close to Estela … at which point reality rears its ugly head after Beto steals something white and powdery that doesn’t belong to him, thus setting in motion an unfortunate chain reaction that will change the lives of everyone involved. I won’t mince words: You need a strong stomach to take on Heli. Escalante pulls no punches in his depiction of the horrors Heli and his family endure. They involve, for instance, a harrowing sequence that turns a drab living room into a torture chamber.
Even at its darkest, though, Escalante’s gift for immaculate composition and knack for turning the arid vistas of his setting into a secondary character work wonders to make the mayhem more palatable. He also finds absurdist humor in the bleakest scenario, establishing a tonal balancing act that’s never less than enthralling. It’s not just a country’s quality of life that’s at stake here, Escalante seems to say. It’s one family’s soul that’s on the line, and it’s this household that gives the film its unerring sense of urgency.
Escalante fuses many seemingly disparate influences. In its portrayal of a working-class country family, Heli sometimes recalls Mexican melodramas from the 1950s. The exterior shots in particular bring to mind Italian neorealism. Cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman leeches out most of the color from his palette, almost making Heli a black-and-white film save for the occasional dash of primary colors, and he gives the long shots an ominous spareness. The unadorned way in which Escalante directs his cast injects even more immediacy to the film’s naturalism, which recalls the work of Silent Light auteur Carlos Reygadas (listed here as associate producer). The haunting results, though, mark Escalante as a fearsome talent all his own. He weaves his own spellbinding brand of lyrical desolation.
It’s invigorating to find such a stimulating, challenging release in the middle of summer at local arthouses. (Heli, which won Best Director honors at last year’s Cannes Film Festival, opens May 30 at the Miami Beach Cinematheque and the Bill Cosford Cinema.) I would be remiss, however, if I did not acknowledge other major news to come out of Hollywood on Friday, an announcement unceremoniously dumped at the end of the news cycle by the folks at Marvel concerning Ant-Man, one of the studio’s 2015 releases, scheduled for release in theaters just over 13 months from now. As it turns out, Edgar Wright (Shaun of the Dead, Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), who had been attached to the project since 2006, has exited the project, citing creative differences
Look, this kind of maneuver happens all the time in Tinseltown. The powers that be frown upon a direction a certain high-profile – and expensive – production is taking, and take steps for a filmmaker to either accommodate to their stipulations or take him out of the picture altogether. What sets this case apart – and makes me Bruce-Banner angry – is that Wright had nurtured Ant-Man since before Marvel became MARVEL, and aided by co-screenwriter Joe Cornish, had attempted to take a crack at integrating some of the execs’ requests. What was the suits’ problem? They summed it up in two words: “core morality,” an euphemistic way to take issue with the fact – established time and time again throughout the cult comic book on which the movie is based – that Henry Pym, the biophysicist to be played by Paul Rudd in the film, is not exactly a role model. It stands to reason, then, that Wright had every intention of remaining true to the source material, which gave way to clashing worldviews and ruthless wheeling and dealing.
Online coverage in the wake of the announcement has been abundant, but when it comes to more specific details – in particular, who was truly responsible for bringing Wright to the point at which he (wisely) decided there was a limit to his willingness to compromise his artistic integrity – remain in the realm of speculation. Rather than analyze the situation in the context of the Marvel Cinematic Universe – and trust me, there’s been some wordy, dunderheaded rhetoric spilled already – let me bring this back to Wright, who made what was probably the most difficult decision in his career. As an admirer and champion of his work – come on, who can possibly resist his playful marriage of warmth and wit? – it pains me that someone who’s brought so much joy to millions has had to endure being treated like a disposable hired hand.
Shortly after the announcement was made, Wright tweeted out a black-and-white photo of Buster Keaton, looking miserable while holding a Cornetto cone, a reference to the fictional ice cream brand found in Shaun, Hot Fuzz and last summer’s The World’s End, otherwise known as the Cornetto Trilogy. And the melancholy image crushed me. (Joss Whedon, who directed The Avengers and is currently hard at work on its sequel, tweeted out a selfie of himself holding a Cornetto wrapper in a show of solidarity.) I’m not saying the Ant-Man film doesn’t have a shot at actually being good, and now that the cast is already in place, I really hope an as yet-unannounced replacement in the director’s chair will make it work in his or her own way. I am saying, however, that with this dark cloud hovering above Marvel, it’s going to be very difficult for them to regain my trust. And that should count for something.