CANNES – Telenovela has never seemed more inviting than it does in a brief scene midway through “Heli,” which plants our gormless title character in front of an unseen television set blaring the busy hubbub of Spanish soap opera, its shrill dramatics amplifying the violent silence that courses through Mexican director Amat Escalante’s third feature. This kind of deadpan reference to more conservative forms of Latin culture is a note often played in new Mexican cinema, ascribing authenticity to a film’s worldview by way of absurd contrast — though reality is as flattened in “Heli” as it is heightened in telenovela.
The ongoing Mexican drug war has already given us some startling visions of social disease from the country’s itchier young filmmakers — notably Gerardo Naranjo’s “Miss Bala,” a sensation at Cannes two years ago thanks to its impassively coiled gender politics and widescreen vistas of conflict. Few, however, have gone for the jugular quite as brazenly as Escalante does in this non-linear tale of a working-class family brutally punished for unwitting cocaine trafficking, which looks set to remain a talking point throughout the festival — though certainly no further — for its highly calculated flare-ups of extreme physical sadism. Cannes-attuned Twitterati may already know the most eyebrow-raising of these; I shall keep it unspoiled here, though it’s hardly a revelation to relish.
The extended opening sequence, shot and edited with nervy, languorous precision, is already a fair indication that we’re not heading in a sprightly direction: when stripped corpses are hung from highway overpasses, trouble tends to follow. Or indeed precede. Escalante takes his time assembling the whos, whens and whys of this grisly act, with nuance, social specificity and even basic motivation slipping between the tangram cracks.
The parable that emerges from this determinedly oblique construction is simple enough. Young factory worker Heli lives with his wife, child, father and 12-year-old sister Estela, whose precocious affair with 17-year-old police cadet Beto proves the family’s undoing. As a kind of voluntary Police Corruption 101 exercise, dim-witted Beto hoards part of a confiscated cocaine stash in Heli’s water tank, only to be grimly apprehended by his most sophisticatedly corrupt seniors, who have unorthodox new methods of wrist-slapping. The graphic carnage that follows is perhaps surplus to the requirements of what Escalante, per the press notes, insists isn’t a message, but sounds distinctly like one: drugs get you in trouble, and female sexuality has its problems too.
On this evidence — I confess I haven’t seen the director’s previous films, one of which, “Sangre,” won the FIPRESCI Award in Un Certain Regard in 2005 — Escalante is at this stage only half a provocateur. “Heli” executes its shocks with sleek, gasp-inducing effectiveness, but neither it politics, nor its shifts in physical perspective, ever surprise or disorientate us. (That’s not something you could say about even the weakest work of Escalante’s friend and producer Carlos Reygadas — to whom he’s obviously in thrall, not least in the film’s oddly shoehorned-in stabs of nutso humor and anti-charismatic non-professional cast.)
Brillante Mendoza’s muscular, broadly comparable “Kinatay,” another nightmarish study in warped authority, was aesthetically scrappier than Escalante’s film, but that’s because his camera demonstrated genuine curiosity about what it was looking at and why. All sandy surfaces and doomy lilac clouds, “Heli” could hardly be more pristinely framed and lit by cinematographer Lorenzo Hagerman, but its glassiness is a cop-out, objectifying characters that are already objects in a rigid moral composition. Supremely accomplished and subtextually tidy, “Heli” leaves us, even at its ugliest, comfortably numb.