★★★☆☆Despite an audacious scene near its midpoint that will undoubtedly prompt much tongue-wagging, Amat Escalante's third feature, Heli (2013), is largely about just how commonplace unexceptional cruelty and bloodshed has become in his native Mexico. His previous film, Los Bastardos (2008), concerned a shocking act of violence committed impassively by two immigrant labourers in Los Angeles. On this occasion, that same callousness is a symptom of a national malady. Claiming the Best Director prize at last year's Cannes Film Festival, Escalante's Heli proves grim viewing that never quite locates a meaningful thesis above a desire to bear witness to Mexico's warped mentality.
Heli's single-shot opening sequence, in which a young man unceremoniously hangs from a bridge in the morning sun, is technically impressive but distressing enough to support such claims. The narrative then leaps back to introduce the eponymous Heli (Armando Espitia), his 12-year-old sister Estela (Andrea Vergara) and her older boyfriend, Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacio). The siblings inhabit cramped quarters with their father and Heli's wife and young baby. Beto longs to whisk Estela away but instead highlights the fragility of everyday existence in such perilous times. He pilfers some cocaine, resulting in a house raid by either ruthless police or a cartel.
Either way, the endemic corruption of Mexico's soul is apparent with the three youngsters abducted - Estela forced into underage prostitution and the boys tortured. This abuse forms the basis of the infamous aforementioned scene; Beto is stripped, his genitals doused with lighter fluid and a match struck. There's an eerie banality to it all; children sit feet away playing computer games, struggling to recall the crimes of the screaming boy alight in the centre of the room Such heinous acts being committed against ordinary people is clearly Escalante's central anxiety. The matter-of-fact nature extends to cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman's long, dispassionate takes. He provides the dusty vista with a rustic raw beauty, but one in which despicable acts are commonplace and the camera doesn't pan away.
The uncomfortable atmosphere is only sporadically punctuated with moments of almost absurd comedy - an early scene in which Beto bench-presses Estela is especially amusing. Dead-pan performances from the largely non- professional cast keep things prosaic and rarely engage much but the most innate empathy. The 'what' that will ignite debate - flambéed cojones will do that - but it's the 'why' that remains just out of reach. Where it should be a furious call to arms to save a nation ablaze, the film concludes feeling strangely impotent even though it makes for compelling viewing. Shock and awe are both present - as is Escalante's intense style - but Heli lacks the ideas or formal dexterity to constitute a state of the nation address in any but the most cursory of ways.
Heli is released in UK cinemas this Friday. To read our interview with director Amat Escalante, simply follow this link.