Director: Amat Escalante
Runtime: 105 minutes
At the 2012 Cannes Film Festival, Mexican director Carlos Reygadas took home the Best Director prize. This year, his countryman Amat Escalante did so, for a film which Reygadas helped produce. Reygadas' touch is felt throughout Escalante's drug war drama, from the simple yet formal camera work to the aversion to trained performers. Unfortunately, none of Reygadas' influence, or Escalante's own vision, works particularly well. The execution is technically competent, but ultimately provokes little more than a shrug once its final shot fades to white.
Drug trade violence is an always-topical subject matter, though most audiences are used to seeing it from a white perspective (whether in the likes of The Counselor or on TV's Breaking Bad). In that sense, it's nice to see a film that examines drug-related violence for an entirely Mexican point of view. If only the quality of the writing was there to give Heli greater justification for its existence.
Heli aims for modern Greek tragedy, but it fails thanks to Escalante's indifferent attitude towards his characters, and the horrific events that befall them. The downward spiral is set in motion by a move of passion between two children, yet the real sense of tragedy is missing. The context of the setting - a world where people are forced to grow up far too fast - is compelling in its own right, but Escalante write and directs his story in a manner that never truly connects. It's telling that Heli's most effective moments are those involving anonymous violence, as in the initially vague opening sequence.
The problem is that Escalante mistakes socio-political context for actual drama. As a window into Mexico, Heli actually does a solid job. What's missing is some greater reason or statement to make it worth the investment. Character arcs are non-existant, and the story's entire purpose seems to be that "hey, that drug violence south of the border really is unpleasant business, isn't it?" Escalante pulls off some nicely textured visual moments, but there's absolutely nothing underneath. The film received attention at Cannes for a violent sequence involving flaming body parts. However, in the full context, the bit barely registers, even as it gives painful new meaning to the song "Great Balls of Fire."
Not helping matters are the performances, which are nothing more than functional. Only Armando Espitia as the titular protagonist achieves anything resembling a rounded performance, but his efforts are in vain. Escalante isn't interested in his characters. He cares about how he can use them to make a point. A pity that he forgot to even make much of a point to begin with.