Law, what is it good for? Not much in Mexican filmmaker Amat Escalante's third feature 'Heli', a portrait of a poor, hardworking family screwed once by crime and once again for luck by the authorities in smalltown Mexico. Escalante's last film, 'Los Bastardos’, slapped no-frills nihilism on to its tale of Mexican robbers in California. 'Heli' is similarly confrontational. Scenes of hanging and decapitation are rivalled in shock value only by an episode involving flaming testicles and one in which a small dog gets its neck wrung. But what threatens to descend into an arthouse horror show of physical indignity piled on to psychological torture in the end becomes something more sad, sombre and even, in a crooked way, oddly reassuring.
Heli (Armando Espitia) is a young man living with his father, his school-age sister Estela (Andrea Vergara), his wife and their baby in a small town. He works at the same car factory as his unassuming dad, although on different shifts, while his wife is still adjusting to being a mother and recovering from a difficult birth. His sister, a conscientious student, is stumbling through an unconsummated love affair with a slightly older guy, Beto (Juan Eduardo Palacios), who is treated like dirt (forced to roll in vomit; head hovered over a toilet) in brutal police cadet training sessions in the desert. One foolish decision on the too-green sister's part – allowing Beto to hide some drugs in a water tank on the roof of their home – sends the lives of her entire family into a tailspin. The sudden involvement of a vicious special crime force and, later, the corrupt local police only reinforces the picture of this family as victims of forces way beyond their control.
Escalante's control of his storytelling is exemplary; his gently inquisitive, sometimes teasing camerawork and his desire to linger on people and places and find some hope in the natural world are much-needed counterpoints to the harshness of the film's more in-your-face gory details. What makes 'Heli' more interesting than just a stark picture of a community in a mess are its nuanced suggestions of how evil at the top seeps down to corrupt at the lowest levels of society. Small mistakes can kickstart events which are horrific when there's no moral or institutional certainty to rely on. There's also a strong strain of empathy running through the film and even a last-minute reminder of how families can endure the most terrible events. If 'Heli' lacks enough focus and thematic clarity to make it properly special, it's still winningly provocative and always compelling.