Going into Heli, the one thing I had heard repeatedly is that it is very hard to watch. Reports of its difficulty have been greatly exaggerated. There are a small handful of violent scenes, but with the exception of two, all are well within the realm of what anybody who watches R rated films would expect. The other two are, first, a quick, shocking wringing of a dog’s neck, and later, a torture scene in which a man is beaten (tame by movie standards) and then has his genitals set on fire (less tame). The first one is exactly like it sounds, let’s talk about the second.
The immolation is captured in an unbroken medium shot with fire added digitally in post-production. The shot is long, but not too long, and it’s far more disturbing than graphic. Amat Escalante wisely spares us a close-up or second shot. Sure, it’s not easy to watch (for the record, neither is the puppy’s head being wrung, but that one comes and about as quickly as you can process it), but far, far worse things are in tons of other movies. Heli is no harder to watch than dozens of other crime films.
The other common complaint, that the violence may not be unbearable but is perhaps excessive or pointless, is also worth examining. In the aforementioned torture sequence, one witness asks another what the man being tortured to deserve it, a question that remains unanswered (as if there is an answer that would make it okay to hang him, beat him with a cricket bat, and light his genitals aflame). We also see this man hung up over the freeway, and early in the film, a different man is beaten for information. Not only is that information unrevealed, we don’t even learn what it concerns (although an educated guess would suggest it has to do with the two kilos of cocaine that act as the film’s centerpiece).
This pointlessness is almost precisely the point of Heli. The film is about police corruption and drug cartels, two interlinked issues that are plaguing Mexico at the moment with no foreseeable end. I can’t imagine that all the violence that drug wars and cartels partake in or bring about has a “point,” or that it spares innocent puppies or innocent people, and Escalante is reflecting that reality. Is his film’s violence excessive, pointless, or tasteless? Only insofar as reality’s violence is the same. There is only one problem with the film’s violence/depiction of violence, to be discussed later.
Despite accusations of falling into art-house cliches or indulgent long takes, Escalante’s direction is by far the strongest feature of the film. He breaks long takes up with shorter, static shots, and goes for showoff-y tracking shot on precisely the two or three occasions the film calls for it. The narrative comes together rather slowly, focusing on a number of different characters before eventually focusing on the eponymous one, a recent father with a somewhat dissatisfied wife, a job at a car plant with his father, and a younger sister with an older, corrupt cadet boyfriend (whose drug pedaling initiates the action). It isn’t until about halfway through the film, however, that Heli finds its subject in the title character, and although this approach is a bit disorienting, it also provides the film with an ethnographer’s touch, bringing the whole of the country to life, positioning the film as a social-realist drama rather than a character study, and instilling humanism on which the end heavily depends.
The screenplay isn’t quite as tight as the direction. Critics chiding the film for not saying much about the drug wars other than “it’s bad and it hurts innocent people” are not wrong; there admittedly is not much nuance here. When the film does put Heli front and center, post-trauma, the film loses a bit—even in the beginning, the cartel segments were stronger than the family segments—and its attempts to say something about the placement of family come off as hollow, if not regressive. The film concludes with Heli enacting revenge on his sister’s rapist, at which point he can finally have sex with his wife again. This is a simplistic, masculine ending on its own, even if it does carry with it the possibility of moving on and rebuilding, but it also creates a parallel between the re-lionized Heli and the prisoner who was castrated, so to speak, which renders the film regressive in its regard for masculinity even when confronting problems that likely have a lot to do with it.
Mileage may vary on whether phallic and storytelling issues outweigh craft—especially when the craft is more formalistic than affective, largely devoid of flash but always functional and appropriate to mood and plot—but for the majority of its hour and forty-five minutes, it works, and that’s good enough for me.