The War on Drugs – ★★★½
Amat Escalante’s Heli is at different points harrowing, disgusting, gripping and captivating. It treads a fine line between what’s acceptable to put your actors and audience through and what’s worthy of a cinema walk-out.
The film is set in a small Mexican town and tells the story of a seventeen-year-old boy by the name of Heli (Armando Espitia). He lives with his father, younger sister, wife and baby with the younger sister’s boyfriend never too far away either.
The younger sister Estella’s boyfriend Beto is a trainee police cadet and manages to steal some packages of cocaine that had been set aside to be publicly destroyed in a show of the police’s fight against drugs. He had planned to sell the cocaine to run away with Estella but Heli finds it and throws it away. Thus opens out gateway into the sordid world of drugs, violence, government and police corruption. The special forces – who may be in some form of cahoots with the drug gangs – aren’t happy and capture Heli, Estella and Beto to teach them a thing or two about messing with the system.
Escalante took home a prize for Best Director at the 2013 Cannes Film Festival and it’s not hard to see why. His style is incredibly distinctive for a young film-maker with long uncomfortable takes forcing us to watch some incredibly uncomfortable acts of violence and allusions to rape. There is one incredible shot in particular which sees Heli’s wife returning to their home after the family have been taken to find a scene of carnage with blood pools and bullet holes. Escalante’s shot tracks her from behind and walks into the house with her before slowly moving backwards into a crane shot as she slowly retreats back outside to try and make sense of the scene. It’s all one take and forces the reality of what’s happened to fester in your consciousness.
The film’s brief opening shot of a barely-clothed body being thrown off a bridge – which turns out to be a flashforward to the middle act of the film – sets the tone for the whole film. From this point on it’s clear that this is the Mexico that we read about in Time magazine or hear being discussed on NPR’s This American Life. Mexican cinema has shown us how horrible life can be for teens in superb recent pictures like The Golden Dream and After Lucia but we don’t get as much of a sense of the bigger picture in play here and instead it’s a much smaller picture about how it can affect the life of one man and his family.
The film will leave a lot of viewers queasy and put off as you really do wonder whether some of the extreme acts of violence were necessary as it all feels a little too provocative – do we need to see someone’s genitals being set alight? Is the tiny dog’s neck being snapped essential? But unlike the needless provocation of the much-derided torture porn genre, there is at least some sort of character arc and redemption in play here.
Not for everyone but if you’ve a strong stomach it’s worth the watch.
Released exclusively at the IFI from May 23rd