“You’ll get to know God in the land of the damned,” mutters one of the vast array of scumbags on tap in Amat Escalante’s shocking crime drama Heli, opening Friday exclusively at the Media Arts Center’s Digital Gym. It’s as good a line as any to characterize the dark shade of noir the film revels in showing us.
Heli (Armando Espitia) works in a Mexican automobile factory. He’s the kind of cocky kid capable of buying his girlfriend a cuddly pup and then, when called upon, pumping two rounds into a pit bull. (It’s normally difficult for me to endorse any film in which the death of an animal is part of the evening’s entertainment. After three viewings, suffice it to say that, unless the shooting was digitized, I don’t think the pit bull lived to see the wrap party.) Nor is Heli your typical Fordian archetype; when his sister turns up missing at the hands of volatile drug lords, there will be no search through this savage world where corruption takes on many personalities.
From its bold opening long take — one of the most disconcerting and seductively executed lead-ins in many a moon — Escalante sends viewers hurtling downward on a topsy-turvy journey through his hellish depiction of Mexico’s war on drugs. Same familiar terrain, different cartel, you ask? Guess again. Escalante is fighting the good fight.
Those who fault movies for glamorizing criminal behavior will be glad to learn that Heli is far from a hoodlum recruitment film. It’s not for the faint of heart (brutal honesty seldom is), and some will find the film’s graphic “do the crime, do the time” tack difficult to brave.
Not content to just say “no,” Escalante reasons that if one is to ply children with drugs and sell them into a life of prostitution, what better punishment than a cricket bat to the spine or, in the case of extreme offenders, a genitalia flambé? None of this is made any more tolerable by Escalante’s placement of characters in the frame. The presence of children seated feet away from the retributory acts, clicking at video-game controllers, too numb to distinguish between onscreen and offscreen violence, quietly hammers home the point.
Escalante took home this year’s Best Director prize at the Cannes Film Festival, but the tough subject matter has prevented the bigger chains in town from gobbling it up. This is where the Digital Gym proves indispensable. When the film screened at this year’s Latino Film Festival, I promised Media Arts Center director Ethan Van Thillo my full support were they to book the film into the Gym. Here it is. All that’s needed to make it work is your support. Go to Heli.