|Courtesy of Outsider Pictures|
2014, 103 minutes
Review by Joshua Handler
This review was originally published on January 5, 2014.
Amat Escalante won the Best Director Award at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival for his outstanding, but ghastly violent, Heli, the Mexican submission to the Academy Awards. The film tells the story of Heli (Armando Espitia), a young man in Mexico whose life is changed forever when his young sister’s boyfriend steals cocaine from a corrupt general and the violence of the drug war starts to affect Heli personally.
Heli excels on every level. Escalante keeps a measured pace throughout and treats the violence as if it is something that just happens – which just might be the point of the film. The film isn’t trying to give us a message on violence; it simply is showing that it is part of everyday life.
When Heli won the Best Director Award at Cannes, it caused uproar due to the violence depicted. The film’s torture scenes are certainly brutal to watch and the violence does shock, but if the violence weren’t as horrific as it is, it wouldn’t have been nearly as effective.
Despite the disturbing and out-of-control nature of the events depicted in Heli, Escalante has complete control over his film. As mentioned, the pace is even. And, every shot is immaculately framed. Escalante’s careful and precise camera movements (or lack of during the torture scenes) make Heli suspenseful and gripping. Every image is truly beautiful.
And, as a piece of storytelling, Heli is very strong – Amat Escalante also wrote the screenplay. There are no wasted scenes and every scene builds to the next with the movie finally coming to a very moving and unsentimental conclusion.
The acting is universally strong – I never felt as if I was watching actors. Armando Espitia gives an especially expressive and moving performance as Heli – I cannot wait to see what he does next.
Overall, Heli is an unflinching and damning vision of life in war-ridden areas in modern-day Mexico. A film like this speaks volumes more than anything you would see on the news since this is a personal story with sympathetic characters. Escalante isn’t spouting statistics, he’s showing the horrors as they really are and I really commend him and his entire team for that.