Film review: Heli

Andrea Vargara in Heli
Andrea Vargara in Heli

Utterly uncompromising in every way - there’s unlikely to be a tougher watch in cinemas this year than crime drama Heli.

Spanish director Amat Escalante’s third film is set in a small city in Mexico, riddled with violent crime, drugs and gangs.

Armando Espitia stars as Heli, a young man who lives in a cramped home with his wife, father, son and little sister.

Life is tough but they seem to be eking a living and staying on the right side of the law. That is until 12-year-old sister Estela (Andrea Vargara) plots to run away with boyfriend Beto, funded by a consignment of cocaine liberated from the local police department and hidden in a rooftop water tank.

It’s an uneasy introduction, particularly given the very obvious age difference between Estela and her police cadet beau. In one memorable scene he’s shown effortlessly executing bicep curls using Estela as a barbell, looking more like a father than a lover.

But Beto is more plot contrivance than threat. The real danger comes when a gang dressed as fake policemen arrive at the house to recover their drugs stash. All hell breaks loose and Heli, Beto and Estrela are kidnapped.

There follows a torture scene which is as realistic as it is shocking. A plank of wood, petrol and a lighter are the only props used, as youngsters look on impassively between bouts of video gaming. “What has this one done?”, asks one. “Dunno”, says another before casually taking a picture of the brutality unfolding. It lasts for what seems like forever, even though it’s actually only around 15 minutes.

Most of the actors were plucked from the Mexican streets by the director, giving a naturalistic feel which intensifies the horror - a million miles away from the stylized carnage of a Tarantino or Winding Refn. There’s no sensationalism, no moral judgement, just the cold unwavering stare of Escalante’s camera.

But, much like the infamous opening scene of Gaspar Noé’s equally-polarising Irreversible, the sadism is required to drive home the motivation of the characters. The same can be said for the fate of Estela, whose absence for much of the film is almost as unbearable as what’s being shown onscreen.

When Heli’s journey eventually turns him from victim to vigilante, it’s a transformation that is satisfyingly real and natural - if you can make it that far.